A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

on April 7, 2017

I happened across a mention of this while reading a critical review of The Year of Reading Dangerously, and I have to agree that this book is far more engaging in describing the book-reader experience. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve read almost every book Ellis talks about, which range from What Katy Did to The Bell Jar — but even when I hadn’t read the book, or don’t really remember it, her intimate knowledge and enthusiasm for the books made it easy to follow her points. I think it’s telling that while TYoRD didn’t inspire me to want to read anything the author read, this sent me dashing to the library site several times.

It’s curious that our youthful reading choices were so similar, because it’s hard to imagine someone from a more different background than mine. Ellis’s parents were immigrants from Iraq to England, and fairly devout and traditional Jews. She not only had a bat mitzvah, but a tier from the cake was pointedly saved for her wedding day. Much of her reading as she got older centered around the idea of escape from the life being rigidly prescribed for her, while mine was escape from a life without any protective boundaries.

Yet we read the same… and not just the obvious classics like Little Women, but more obscure books like Frost in May by Antonia White. Virago Modern Classic girls, both of us. All the books center women — who may or may not be appropriate heroines — and only two that I recall were written by men. (Franny and Zooey and Marjorie Morningstar.)

The theme of the memoir is how books helped Ellis become an independent woman doing what she loves, and she writes from two perspectives: what she remembers of her feelings when originally reading the books, and what she takes away from rereading them now. It made me think of a quote which sadly I can’t entirely remember, something along the lives of “Don’t think me superficial for reading novels; I’m trying to build a life.” Her insights are personal and not necessarily particularly deep; I’m sure there are far more thorough and complex feminists examinations of Gone With the Wind, for example. But seeing her react and think and rethink the roles of women in her favorite books, and come to peace with her own life, is captivating.

As a romance reader, I was also intrigued by the conflicting thoughts in Ellis around love and romance. She’s drawn to the bad boys of fiction — Heathcliff and Rhett — but her desire for fictional happy endings is at war with her desire to live a very different kind of life herself. And so she searches for heroine role models amongst spinster characters. (I’m reminded of a discussion I had recently on twitter about the difference between a happy ending and a HEA. To me, a HEA is inherently fairy tale in meaning, and so has to be a fairy tale ending. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a couple ride off into the sunset together to have a happy ending.) Ellis ends the book on a note of satisfaction and reconciliation, just the right note for this reader’s journey.

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