The best books about wily, take-charge women

Maryka Biaggio Author Of Parlor Games
By Maryka Biaggio

Who am I?

Ever since I stumbled across the story of May Dugas, who the Pinkertons described as “the most dangerous woman in the world,” I’ve been fascinated by women who were born into lowly circumstances and yearned to better themselves. How far were they willing to go to rise above their station? This question takes on added weight for women in earlier eras—when women’s choices and opportunities were limited. So I’ve long been attracted to historical fiction that examines just these questions. And I’ve enjoyed hearing readers’ reactions to May’s story when I visit book clubs. What reader isn’t fascinated by stories of transgression and daring?


I wrote...

Parlor Games

By Maryka Biaggio,

Book cover of Parlor Games

What is my book about?

The Pinkertons branded her a crafty blackmailer, but to her Dutch Baron husband she was the most glamorous woman to grace Europe’s shores. Was the real May Dugas a cold-hearted enchantress, an able provider for her poor family, or a free-spirited globe-trotter? Parlor Games is based on the true story of the woman who made headlines not only in her Michigan hometown, but also in New York and London.

The books I picked & why

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Slammerkin

By Emma Donoghue,

Book cover of Slammerkin

Why this book?

Maybe it’s because of my working-class roots, but Mary Saunders, an obscure but very real historical figure, is the sort of woman I wanted to root for. After all, it takes initiative, ingenuity, and not a small dose of impetuosity to rise from a lower-class schoolgirl to, well, some higher station. I was saddened to see how Mary’s yearnings to free herself from the shackles of her class forced her into prostitution at a young age. But when she made a dangerous misstep that set her on the run and landed her a position of a household seamstress, I couldn’t help but fear the worst for her. I was glued to the page in Emma Donoghue’s rich and provocative tale of this young girl’s quest for a better life.


Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of Fingersmith

Why this book?

Sarah Waters is a master storyteller, and you can’t go wrong with any of her books, but this is among my favorites. Little orphan Susan Trinder is shuttled off to a Mrs. Sucksby, who is something of a mother figure and commands a household of wee fingersmiths and thieves. I was rooting for Susan to break free of her life of crime and find respectability, but she just may have chosen the wrong person to pave the way—the legendary thief who goes by the moniker Gentleman. Susan and Gentleman develop a scheme to swindle an innocent woman out of her inheritance. But Susan and the woman unexpectedly find common ground, and then the fun begins! I really enjoyed this wild ride of a novel.


The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress

By Ariel Lawhon,

Book cover of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress

Why this book?

What could be better than one wily, take-charge woman? How about three? This is Ariel Lawhon’s debut novel, and it is pure fun. (I have enjoyed all her novels, but this one is a real romp.) The story launches one summer night in 1930 when Judge Joseph Crater steps into a New York City cab and is never heard from again. I loved how we learn the judge is a not-so-honorable character, involved with three women: Stella, his fashionable wife, the picture of propriety; Maria, their steadfast maid, indebted to the judge; and Ritzi, his showgirl mistress, willing to seize any chance to break out of the chorus line. This is a tantalizing reimagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930—Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance—through the eyes of the three women who knew him best. Lawhon has a real knack for finding fascinating characters!


A Reliable Wife

By Robert Goolrick,

Book cover of A Reliable Wife

Why this book?

This novel created a stir when it first came out in 2010; it seemed everyone was talking about it. After I read it, I had to agree it was worth the buzz. In 1909, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman in rural Wisconsin, places a notice in a Chicago paper advertising for "a reliable wife." But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the "simple, honest woman" that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. She plans to win his devotion, poison him, and leave a wealthy widow. But Truitt has his own secrets and plans, and soon they’re both in over their heads. I love novels like this that take me on an unexpected journey.


Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye,

Book cover of Jane Steele

Why this book?

"Reader, I murdered him." Yes, those are among the opening lines of this reimagining of Jane Eyre’s story. I was immediately hooked! Jane Steele is a sensitive orphan who suffers at the hands of a spiteful aunt. I have a weakness for orphans and misfits, and at first Jane put me in mind of Cinderella. But the story quickly turns dark. After fleeing her grim life and making her way by penning criminals’ last confessions, she learns her aunt has died and she may be the heir to the home left behind. But there’s a complication—her childhood home has a new master, Mr. Thornfield, who happens to be seeking a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate's true heir, Jane takes the position and falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield. Thus begins a dangerous dance between her and her master. I loved this book!


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