Modern Mrs. Darcy · Feb 21, 2018

50 contemporary books every woman’s gotta read

Have you ever finished a book and thought, Wow, I wish everyone would read that?

I’m an avid reader, and I love hearing about the books that inspire strong reactions in other readers—the ones they finish thinking the world would be a better place if every single person would read it.

But here’s the funny thing about these books we consider “must” reads: every reader has a different list. I asked on Instagram for you to share the books you think are so good that every woman has gotta read them. And WOW, did you deliver: the comments, both public and private, contained an astonishing variety of literary works.

I’m sharing the most frequently cited books in two blog posts. I previously shared 25 must-read classics for women. Today I’m sharing 50 contemporary works that many women consider must-reads, divided loosely by genre.

Readers, I hope you enjoy browsing the variety of books many different women consider to be must-reads. Are YOUR must-reads on this list? If not, please tell us all about them in comments.

Series: 50 Contemporary Books Every Woman’s Gotta Read: Contemporary Fiction

Author: Anita Diamant
In the book of Genesis, Dinah is the only surviving daughter of Leah and Jacob. She's a minor character in the Bible, but The Red Tent is her life story: Diamant interweaves characters from the biblical narrative with characters of her own invention to vividly portray what it was like to live in those times, with a strong emphasis on the relationships between the women. Stirring, imaginative, and atmospheric. More info →

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The story centers around a smart, strong-willed Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. After university, she travels to America for postgraduate work, where she endures several years of near-destitution, and a horrific event that upends her world. She finds her way, winning a fellowship at Princeton, and gaining acclaim for her blog, called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." A highlight: Adichie seamlessly weaves blog posts—about race, national identity, class, poverty, and hair—into the narrative. Haunting, moving, incredibly well done. More info →

Author: Rosamunde Pilcher
This family saga tells the story of three generations of a modern British family, brought together again during a time of crisis, all of whom have been burned by love and must figure out how to move forward. Full of interesting, well-developed, flawed-but-likable characters. It's one of the top 100 novels in the BBC's Big Read. More info →

Author: Elena Ferrante
This is the first installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which revolves around the friendship between Elena and Lila; My Brilliant Friend begins when the girls are in first grade and carries them through adolescence. Thought-provoking, beautifully written, realistic enough to be quite difficult in places. But readers who love this LOVE IT. Beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein. I LOVED this series on audio. More info →

Author: Angie Thomas
This has been called "the Black Lives Matter novel," for good reason. At age 16, Starr Carter has lost two close friends to gun violence: one in a drive-by; one shot by a cop. The latter is the focus of this novel: Starr is in the passenger seat when her friend Khalil is fatally shot by a police officer. She is the sole witness. Thomas seamlessly blends current events with lower-stakes themes common to teens everywhere, with great success. Fun fact: the title comes from a Tupac lyric. More info →

Author: Marilynne Robinson
Robinson's story of the dying Iowa minister John Ames is one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever read, containing some of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper. Wistful, reflective, and wise, this is a book you can read over and over again. More info →

Author: Yaa Gyasi
By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how the deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. Her debut follows the generations of one family over a period of 250 years, showing the devastating effects of racism from multiple perspectives, in multiple settings. A brilliant concept, beautifully executed. More info →

Author: Colum McCann
In 1974 New York City, Phillipe Petit walked a high wire strung between the Twin Towers. This true event is the backdrop to McCann's fictional response to 9/11, in which he tells the interlocking stories of three New Yorkers struggling with their own personal tragedies. More info →

Author: Wendell Berry
In this atmospheric novel, an older Hannah looks back on her life and reflects on what she has lost, and those whom she has loved. I adore Berry, who writes gorgeous, thoughtful, piercing novels, and this is one of his finest. Contemplative, wistful, and moving. More info →

Author: Nicole Krauss
With interweaving storylines, Krauss shows how a sixty-year-old lost-and-then-found manuscript connects multiple people—Holocaust survivors, fatherless children, widows, and lovers—across time and space. If you love book-within-a-book narratives, give this a try. Touching, humorous, and heartbreaking. More info →

Author: Fredrik Backman
I couldn't get into this as a hardcover but then a friend with great taste suggested I give the audio a try. I started again from the beginning, and this time this grumpy old man story hooked me. George Newburn narrates, and his accents—especially for Ove—are fantastic. I laughed and cried and couldn't stop listening. But do yourself a favor: don't even think about finishing this novel in a public place, and think about removing your mascara first. More info →

Author: Margaret Atwood
Set in a future where women have no control over their bodies, this is a staple of high school reading lists ... and banned books list. The first person perspective and societal commentary make this novel extremely discussable. Heads up for audiobook fans: Claire Danes's understated narration makes the story compulsively listenable (is that a word?) and extra-creepy. More info →

Author: Chitra Divakaruni
Divakaruni's first novel tells the story of Tilo, a young Indian girl trained in the magical powers of spices and their blends. She disguises herself in a run-down spice shop in Oakland, California, where she uses her powers to improve the lives of the immigrant Indians who come to her for spices, but her longing to find a love of her own tempts her to leave her magical post in search of her own fate. More info →

Author: Liane Moriarty
Alice is 29, expecting her first child, and crazy in love with her husband—or at least she thinks she is, but then she bumps her head and wakes up on the gym floor, to find that she’s actually a 39-year-old mother of 3 who's in the middle of divorcing the man she's come to hate. She doesn't know what’s happened to her these past 10 years, or who she's become. She's about to find out—and she's not going to like the answers. More info →

Author: Kathleen Grissom
The year is 1791, and an orphaned Irish girl is brought to a Virginia plantation as an indentured servant and makes her home among the slaves. The story is told alternately by the orphan Lavinia and 17-year-old Belle, the half-white illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner, who becomes Lavinia's de facto mother figure. The story keeps a brisk pace, propelled forward by rape, corruption, lynching, and occasionally, love. More info →

Author: Carol Shields
This Canadian novel won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Shields adopts an unconventional narrative structure: this is the fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, who reflects on her life, from birth to death, with a great deal of self-awareness and insight; she sees her life as a series of "mini-lives," and in each, she must become a different version of herself. More info →

Author: Lucia Berlin
This 2015 anthology of loosely connected short stories creates engaging and readable stories out of everyday moments affecting women in the American Southwest—some hopeful, some devastating, some tender, and many tipping towards the autobiographical. More info →

Author: James Alexander Thom
Mary Ingles was a real person: she was twenty-three, married, and pregnant when she was taken captive by Shawnee Indians following the Draper's Meadow Massacre in 1755. She escaped and journeyed over 500 miles across the Appalachian Mountains to return home. This is Thom's convincing novelization of her true survival story. More info →

Author: Laurie Frankel
This is a story about a family that, years ago, started keeping a little secret. And, as secrets tend to do, it became bigger over time, implicating all the family members in its keeping, until it felt like the secret was keeping them. I fell completely in love with Rosie and Penn, gained insight into a situation I thought had nothing to do with me, and had complicated feelings about the resolution. The title comes from the idea that parents frequently have to make terrifyingly important decisions about their kids with not enough information even though the stakes are enormous. More info →
Series: 50 Contemporary Books Every Woman's Gotta Read: Biography/Memoir

Author: Darlene Deibler Rose
Darlene Deibler Rose and her husband enter New Guinea as missionaries, but when World War II erupts, the Japanese invade their community. After the men are sent away, Darlene spends the next four years in a notorious Japanese internment camp, where she is charged with espionage, isolated, and sentenced to death. In her own words, she shares her story of how she survived excruciating losses and hardship. More info →

Author: Shonda Rhimes
This inspirational memoir's epigraph bears quotes from Maya Angelou and Christina from Grey's Anatomy, which gives you a good idea of what you'll find inside. Rhimes is the queen of Thursday night tv, creating and producing smash hits like Grey's and Scandal. This time she's telling her own story of how her sister issued her a six-word wake-up call—You never say yes to anything—and the year of YES that followed. More info →

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is an incredible book, and a timely one. Coates frames this series of essays as a letter to his son, exploring what it means to be black in America, and how issues involving race have shaped and continue to shape the country in which he lives. Entertainment Weekly: calls it "the latest essential reading in America's social canon." The audio version, read by the author, is fantastic. More info →

Author: Gloria Steinem
In her 2015 memoir, Steinem reflects on the definitive events of her life and career—her early years as a freelance journalist, her travels to Europe and India, the 1963 March on Washington, her time on the campaign trail for the Equal Rights Amendment and Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, and her work with Native American women activists. Steinem emphasizes throughout that when you take to the road, the road takes—that is, changes—you. More info →

Author: Joan Didion
This book is Didion's account of year following her husband's death, but it's really about the many years of the life they lived together. Writing in real-time, she captures emotion on the page so well. I felt like this wasn't just an exploration of her own grief and mourning, but an inquiry into capital-case Grief and Mourning. So well done, and so worth reading (if a little tough to do so at times). More info →

Author: Lindy West
West is a comedian and former Jezebel writer; this is her nonfiction debut. Her conversational essays cover family, weight, self-esteem, racism, feminism, and being a woman on the internet. More info →

Author: Sue Monk Kidd
This 1996 memoir tells the story of Monk's spiritual journey from traditional Southern Baptist to her discovery of what she calls "the sacred feminine." Amena Brown chose this as a favorite in Episode 88 of What Should I Read Next. More info →

Author: Alexandra Fuller
Fuller does justice to her extraordinary childhood in this 2001 memoir. She was born to British parents in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the Rhodesian Civil War, suffered from malaria, lost three siblings to disease, and carried an Uzi—which she was trained to use—to school. Her true story is absolutely riveting. More info →

Author: Manal al-Sharif
Al-Sharif's nuanced memoir gives a striking account of what it means today to "drive while female" in Saudi Arabia. This is the story of how she grew up as a devout girl in a modest family, the second daughter of a taxi driver, but became an accidental activist. A fascinating story of human rights, gender politics, and social media. More info →

Author: Roxane Gay
From the author of Bad Feminist, a raw and moving memoir about food, weight, self-image, and hunger. After a traumatic incident in her youth, Gay turned to overeating because it made her feel safe, and spent decades learning to quiet her personal demons in other ways. She denies that hers is a success story, but passionately argues the importance of learning to feel comfortable in one's skin. More info →

Author: Anna Quindlen
This memoir was a #1 New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2012. In it, Quindlen uses her own past, present, and future as fodder to examine marriage, friendship, parenting, body image, work, growing older, and more in her signature graceful style. Humorous and wise. More info →

Author: Jeanette Walls
Walls, a former New York gossip columnist, reveals the hardscrabble past she carefully hid for years in this family memoir, which centers on her charasmatic but highly dysfunctional parents: a father with "a little bit of a drinking situation" and a mother who was an "excitement addict," who moved their family all over the country, seeking the next big adventure. Walls spins a good story out of her bad memories. More info →
Series: 50 Contemporary Books Every Woman’s Gotta Read: Essays

Author: Rebecca Solnit
This essay collection features seven pieces by Solnit, all relating to feminism in some way, such as the silencing of women, marriage equality, violence against women, and the power of naming and language. Fun fact: The New Republic credited the titular essay with launching the term "mansplaining." More info →

Author: Kathleen Norris
“Quotidian” means “ordinary,” or “everyday,” and in this slim volume Norris affirms the inherent worth of the mundane tasks that consume our everyday–the cooking, the cleaning, the dishes, the diapering. “What is it about repetitive acts that makes us feel that we are wasting our time?” Norris asks. Yet she insists that our daily activities are anything but trivial, and have the power to shape our souls, if we let them. More info →

Author: Cheryl Strayed
For years, Cheryl Strayed wrote an advice column for called "Dear Sugar." She wrote anonymously—to her readers she was only "Sugar"—and she answered likewise anonymous letters about love and romance, grief and loss, money and family troubles. To call these "columns" seems to sell them short: these are beautiful, heartfelt, brutally honest essays that go in directions you don't expect. More info →

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When a friend asked for advice on how to raise her new daughter as a feminist, Adichie responded with this letter, which includes 15 suggestions for how to empower her baby girl to become a strong, independent written. Easy to read in one sitting, and worth doing so. More info →

Author: Anne Lamott
A modern classic and a must-read for writers. In Anne's own words: "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'" More info →
Series: 50 Contemporary Books Every Woman’s Gotta Read: Health, Wellness, Sexuality

Authors: Elyse Resch, Evelyn Tribole
Two nutritionists teach their readers how to ditch dieting forever and instead listen to their own bodies and recreate a good relationship with food. More info →

Author: Toni Weschler
Every woman needs this information–but nobody talks about it. We don’t discuss these intimate issues with our friends, and most of us don’t get this in-depth information from our doctors. Taking Charge of Your Fertility stands in this void. More info →

Author: Peggy Orenstein
From the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, an eye-opening and sometimes horrifying examination of current trends pertaining to sexuality for today's girls and young adults. More info →

Author: Emily Nagoski
I'd never heard of this book—and was shocked to see that hundreds of friends had read and reviewed it on Goodreads! (It's a New York Times bestseller, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.) This 2015 release shares the newest science on how and why women's sexuality works. More info →
Series: 50 Contemporary Books Every Woman’s Gotta Read: Nonfiction

Author: Stacy London
In this how-to book, London explains her personal philosophy of style and why it's empowering for women to find their own. She then helps nine relatable women diagnose their style issues, and shows them how to embrace a look that makes them both look and feel good. More info →

Author: Brené Brown
Brown's two-word summary of this book is be you. In it, she shares her ten guideposts for wholehearted living that must be cultivated and practiced in order to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. This is the kind of book you'll wish everyone would read: if you take her message to heart it will change your life. More info →

Author: Laura Vanderkam
Can a woman truly have it all? 168 Hours author Vanderkam explores what true balance looks like, meticulously upending the dominant culture narrative that presume a woman's professional success comes only at great personal cost. In this data-driven narrative, based on hundreds of time logs from successful professionals, she shows how women who “have it all” succeed at work, enjoy their families, and make time for themselves. An important (and readable) contribution to the ongoing discussion of work/life balance, and I'm not saying this just because a post on this blog inspired the study. More info →

Author: Linda Babcock
This 2003 book examines the difference between men and women in their propensity to negotiate from what they want. Drawing on years of research and interviews with dozens of women, the authors examine why women may not choose to ask for what they want, how they can learn to ask, and why it's worth doing. More info →

Author: Clarissa Pinkola Estés
In the book, Dr. Estes interprets old tales to reveal an archetypal "wild woman" we don't see much of in contemporary culture, because those qualities have been tamed by a society that believes women should be "nice." She argues that though those qualities may have been submerged, they're still there—and Estes makes a strong argument for why that matters. More info →

Author: Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson's story-driven account describes his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal organization he founded that is devoted to defending the most desperate in our legal system: those who were convicted as children, the wrongly condemned, the poor, and the mentally ill. This story also follows the story of Walter, a man sentenced to Alabama's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Moving, eye-opening, beautifully written. More info →

Author: Atul Gawande
Gawande, a surgeon by trade, tackles weighty issues by sharing lots of stories to bring his research to life, making this book eminently readable. Ultimately, this book is about what it means—medically and philosophically—to live a good life. I'm so glad I didn't wait longer to read this: this book gave me a much better understanding of the wants and needs of my own aging family members. Riveting, absorbing, paradigm-shifting, life-changing. More info →

Author: Rebecca Skloot
This genre-defying narrative combines history, science, memoir, and biography. You've been affected by the HeLa cells derived from Maryland woman Henrietta Lacks, called “immortal” because they thrive in the lab: they’ve been used to develop the polio vaccine, cure cancer, and fight the flu. But her family didn't discover anything about the cells until more than twenty years after her 1951 death. Skloot unearths the incredible story of how that happened, weaving the tale of the HeLa cells together with Lacks' personal narrative. More info →

Author: The Arbinger Institute
This book from the well-respected Arbinger Institute focuses on healing the root cause of conflict, whether it's conflict between family members or conflict between nations. The authors focus on how conflicts take root, spread, and can ultimately be resolved—if we understand how to do it. More info →

Authors: Don Miguel Ruiz, Janet Mills
The Four Agreements are: Be Impeccable With Your Word, Don't Take Anything Personally, Don't Make Assumptions, Always Do Your Best, and this 168-page book unpacks why these four simple statements are so important. More info →

Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Using equal parts memoir, instruction guide, and manifesto, Sandberg tells her story of how she built a career that made it worth staying in the workplace, and she encourages other women to do the same. More info →

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