This is a tough five (and as you'll see I couldn't cut it down to five but ended up with six). There are many women's fiction books that I love, that I read and re-read, but these are the ones that I could not live without. They range from publication in 1818 to 2009 and each of them I've read dozens of times, even the newest of them. I'll give you these books in no particular order, I'm not sure I could pick one that I loved more than the others, but they're all different, all a deeply rooted part of my reading life.
Let's begin with Jane Austen's Persuasion, a book I've been reading and re-reading for over 40 years. I like Jane Austen, and have read all of her books more than once, but this is the book that speaks to me. What makes me love Captain Wentworth more than Mr. Darcy? It's that he and Anne Elliot are grownups. They've lived - and for me, that's a crucial part of women's fiction. They have to forgive themselves, and each other, before they can begin their life together. They have to learn from their mistakes and take risks. Each time I think of Anne standing in the bow of Wentworth's ship as they sail the seas, I can't help but cheer at the courage it must have taken to choose that life rather than the one she knew.
I first read Gene Stratton-Porter's The Keeper of the Bees in my grandmother's basement. I don't think I could have been more than 9 or 10. This was my grandmother's copy (published in 1853), now falling apart, stained from being in storage, the pages falling away from the spine. And despite the damage to it, this is the copy I read even now. Again, Jamie and Molly have learned from the mistakes they've made. It's not easy for them to trust each other - lies might keep them apart. But since the first time I read this book, I have wanted to walk down the sandy street to the little house on Halfmoon Bay. I've wanted to sit on the rock and soak in the heat of it, healing my body and my heart as Jamie does. I've wanted to meet Little Scout (who is the model, I'm sure, for Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird). This is the book of my heart, of my childhood, the book I always aspire to write.
Alice Hoffman and Barbara Kingsolver are two of my favorite writers and it wasn't easy to pick only one book from each of them, but these were my choices. Interestingly, having written this blog, I realize how much these two writers - and books - have in common.
Turtle Moon was the first book I ever read by Alice Hoffman and my copy of it is so tattered, I think I might have to replace it. I'll never give up the original, but I will stop actually reading it. The magic of this book, in the book, entranced me, captured me in a way few books do. It was partly the way the setting forms the characters so clearly, the way the characters struggle to turn their lives around, the suspense and sorrow and pain. The characters in this book aren't perfect, they're flawed and frightened and running from their pasts, but they're wonderful. I love them so much.
The Bean Trees was the first book I ever read by Barbara Kingsolver and I hadn't realized that when I picked these two particular books to sit side by side on this list. Again, there's so much magic, so much LIFE in this book. I loved it when I first read it and I still love it now.
I love this book by Pamela Morsi - Red's Hot Honky Tonk Bar. I bought it because I couldn't resist the title. The book lives up to the title, which doesn't always happen. It's funny, it's smart, it's poignant - for me, it was darn near irresistible. Once again, the characters are older, damaged by their pasts, but willing, in the end, to go for it, to see what might happen if they give life and love another chance. This is the newest of the books - published in 2009 - but it's on my permanent read-when-I'm-having-a-tought-week or when I want a book that I know will cheer me up.
Bronwen Wallace is one of my favorite poets. I met her when I was living and going to university in Toronto after I'd ever so tentatively decided I, too, might want to be a writer. I had already fallen in love with her poetry and she was very gracious to me. This book, her only book of fiction, was published after she died in mid-life, far too early. It's a book of short stories, each of which sings in the same way her poetry does. It sings of ordinary lives lived, of the magic of the everyday, of the beauty of friendship and hot summer days. When I write a short story, I almost always think of Bronwen and hope that I capture a tiny bit of what she did in her stories.