by Samantha Ellis (Vintage Books/Penguin-Random House, February 3, 2015)
While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.
With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.
Carolyn's thoughts on the book:
One part feminist literary critique, one part nostalgia for classic literature, and one part memoir of life growing up in an Iraqi-Jewish community, this book is perfect for those of us who grew up with literary heroines by our sides. Ellis revisits the various female characters that inspired her, and doesn't restrict heroines to just books, including everything from Disney's Sleeping Beauty to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as well as including some religious figures - Esther and Vashti from the Old Testament, for example). One of the things I appreciate the most about this book is that she isn't afraid to change her opinion of female characters the way so many people are - she can recognize that though, say, a particular Disney princess (or Sara Crewe of A Little Princess) was inspiring in some ways to her when she was younger, that character actually isn't the best role-model. Conversely, she's also able to revisit heroines she had rejected in the past - Jane Eyre, for example - and appreciate their qualities in ways she never had before. While I can't claim to have seen every TV show or movie or read every book referenced in this book (each of the eleven chapters focuses on a particular piece of literature and references at least several other pieces of literature and various other forms of media), Ellis' brilliance shines in how she is able to intertwine several different examples of heroines and their respective pieces of literature. Similarly, her seamless weaving together of literature and her personal life is eloquently and elegantly accomplished. Although I in no way grew up in a community similar to the Iraqi-Jewish community Ellis did, I found her more memoir-esque sections to be poignant, hilarious, and fascinating.
Overall, the book is a beautiful and brilliant read that makes me want to re-read my entire collection of classic literature. How To Be A Heroine is a magnificent book, perfect for just about anybody who loves classic literature and female protagonists.