Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: How to Be a Heroine

How To Be A Heroine: Or What I've Learned From Reading Too Much
By Samantha Ellis
Vintage February 2015
264 pages
From the library 

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis has been a reader for as long as she can remember. As she discusses literary heroines with a friend one day, she suddenly realizes that she has spent years trying to emulate Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights. But maybe she should have been trying to be like Jane Eyre instead. Ellis decides to go back and re-read all of the books she loved as a girl and discover which heroines she still loves and which ones have changed with time and years of perspective on life, love, and literature.


Our author is perhaps particularly suited to write about literary heroines, as she herself is a playwright. Each chapter features a few books that correlate to a certain period in Ellis' life - finding friends, falling in love, or starting a new job. She found fellow kindred spirits in imaginative Anne of Green Gables and fellow writer Jo March. When Ellis suffers from seizures, she looks to the suffering of Sylvia Plath and her character Esther in The Bell Jar. She has great insight into these stories and characters and the ways in which they shaped her childhood and continue to inspire her as an adult. Some of the most fascinating chapters are the ones where she sees a story one way in her youth and in a completely different way as an adult.


It would be easy for this book to become trite, an exercise in retelling beloved stories or navel-gazing as Ellis tells her own stories. But we are treated to both engaging analysis of characters and themes and really fascinating autobiographical writing. Although many of the women she is engaging with are written decades or even centuries before her life, Ellis is part of an Iraqi Jewish family that is living in London but holding on tightly to their traditions. From an early age, she was told that her focus should be on finding an appropriate husband, not writing and certainly not going to college. The history and heritage of this particular family gives her insight into characters yearning for freedom over their own lives.


I worried at the outset that I would be confused, as I haven't read all of the books that Ellis references. Somehow though, she hits the perfect balance of giving enough information to bring new characters to life while not boring you when discussing characters you know and love. This is the book you want to read and then discuss with all of your friends as you talk about the women, both real and literary, that shaped you. 

15 comments:

  1. I've been seeing this book on the shelf at work and debating whether I should give it a try. When these kinds of books are done well, they're a lot of fun to read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are a lot of fun to read! I know there are a bunch I still have to check out but this type of book is best spaced out, I think.

      Delete
  2. Sounds amazing! I love a good strong female character!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm reading this right now and loving it! I have to admit that I haven't read some of the stories of the heroines she includes so I'm cringing during spoilers... I know, they're classics! But I honestly don't know some of the stories or endings! :) Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There were several I hadn't read either! I was actually worried I would be confused, but I think she gives just enough information about each story. Are you going to pick up any of the books she mentions that you haven't read yet?

      Delete
    2. Yes, I never finished Wuthering Heights, so that will be my first pick. I'm not even at the halfway point so I'm sure there will be many more before I'm done.
      And I loved her analysis of Little Women- so much I never considered!

      Delete
  4. I like this premise! I love the way you described this as a book you'll want to discuss with your friends. I'll add it to my list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know my bff and I like to chat about Anne of Green Gables, Meg Murray, and other beloved literary heroines. This book would make for great discussion!

      Delete
  5. This sounds so good! I love reading books about people who love books and the reviews of this one are making me want to pick it up asap.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They always look so appealing! I think it makes us feel like we are part of a great community of people who love to read just as much as we do. :)

      Delete
  6. This sounds like an interesting mix of memoir and book-love. Just the sort of book that gets added to my to-read list! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great way to classify it!

      Delete
  7. This sounds almost like a fangirl book! I'm a fangirl of Jane Eyre and Anne of Green Gables, so I would probably love it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's the perfect mix of fun, reminiscing, and insight! I hope you get the chance to read it soon.

      Delete