Reading lists

Complex heroines you can’t help but root for

The relatable, nuanced book characters leading the way in literature of the moment aren’t beloved despite their flaws – they’re loved for them.

Kat Brown
Books with complex female heroines

After centuries of female protagonists having to be either capable or pathetic merely to be allowed on the page, recent decades have seen the rise of The Loveable Mess. Spearheaded by Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, which built on the dizzy heroines of Jilly Cooper’s romance novellas, The Mess reached a point of parody, as skewered by Jessica Hynes’s character, Daisy, in the sitcom Spaced, before settling down to become a more nuanced portrayal of the many ways women can struggle to balance areas of life.

The Loveable Mess, more complex now than ever, always makes for terrific comfort reading, as things fall apart in a pretty epic fashion before she finds her way through, often by extending her friendship network or digging deep into her own past. A note, too, on loveable: this does not mean the human equivalent of a fluffy dog (and even those have their bite). These characters are loveable in the truest sense, admirable for the qualities of skill, grit, and endeavour they show even while other elements of life seek to confound her. We’ve rounded up some of our favourites for you to re-read or discover for the first time. Happy reading!

Just days before their wedding, a woman’s fiancé reveals a betrayal that shakes the very foundations of everything they’ve built together. Torn between staying and leaving, she finds that the stress of the situation has rekindled an insatiable hunger that earned her the unfortunate childhood nickname of “Piglet”. This is an intense and immersive novel, with a protagonist who can be unlikeable at times and has a self-destructive obsession with perfection, but you’ll ultimately be rooting for Piglet as she confronts an unenviable, life-changing dilemma. 

Alone but not lonely, Meredith hasn’t set foot outside her house in over three years. She has her cat, her best friend, sister, and niblings visit her; she has an online support group, and puzzles. Meredith has set up a good life, as long as she doesn’t leave the house – but as the outside world comes knocking, it’s time for her to face why she wants to stay in her place of safety and start giving herself to others.

When Sally misinterprets her late adopted father’s wishes by throwing his ashes in the incinerator, she starts a chain of events that causes her deeply troubled past to be re-examined by the public and media, and later, herself. As Sally works through her trauma, you’ll be willing her on, and hoping for several comeuppances along the way.

Matching bite and humour in equal measure, Garmus’s ’60s-set debut follows scientist Elizabeth Zott, thwarted from her scientific work by male colleagues’ sexism and wholesale thievery of her work. When she is accidentally shunted into the world of TV, she sets out to bring science to her audience with spectacular results – a respectful nod to those real women overshadowed by envious peers.

Publishing intern Mallory is charged with preparing a dictionary to go digital and, in the process, identify and remove fake entries created by a Victorian writer wanting to leave his mark in a distinguished dictionary. Inventively playful, this gloriously charming novel examines the joy of words through Mallory discovering what it truly means to live a truthful and purposeful life.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie is a young Black woman navigating her twenties, straddling Jamaican and British culture while fitting neatly into neither. After a breakup with her long-term partner Tom, she distracts herself with men who further dent her self-esteem and makes questionable decisions as she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants. You’ll root for Queenie throughout this funny but moving book about heritage, trauma, friendship, and building self-worth.

The general consensus in her small Texas hometown is that Lucy killed her best friend Savvy. She was never arrested, but she was found covered in Savvy’s blood, unable to remember what happened the night prior. Five years later, Lucy is helping a true crime podcaster investigate what really happened. She has a tough exterior – she’s strong, sarcastic, and prone to making dry jokes about murder. But Lucy also has many layers and, through her strong characterisation, Listen for the Lie shows that there is no “right” way to be a victim.

The adult debut by bestselling YA author Smale brings the author’s autism diagnosis to the fore in Cassie, a woman who has always felt like an outsider and soon has a day from hell. When she is dumped, fired, and her café runs out of her favourite food on the same day, Cassie’s spiral is interrupted by the thrilling discovery that she can time travel – but can and should she change the past?

Eleanor lives alone, blotting out the weekend in a haze of vodka and the week by not challenging herself at work. Her central touchstone with the world is weekly calls with her poisonous mother, until she is drawn into a new friendship group that calls her to examine everything she knows. A modern classic, this life-enhancing book is also hilarious.

At 31, Yinka is a capable, successful single woman – not that her mum or an extended parade of aunties see it that way. That her bottom doesn’t match up to exacting Nigerian beauty standards (she fears, due to her preference for chicken and chips over Fare From Home) is a further niggle, coupled with her religious conviction to stay a virgin until she marries. When her cousin gets engaged, Yinka comes up with a watertight plan to find the man of her dreams. What could go wrong?

Rachel is having a ball, living it up in New York with her boyfriend Luke ­– until her sister firmly removes her to go to rehab. Rather hazily, Rachel associates rehab with spa treatments and celebrities and agrees to it as a holiday – but what she has to confront there means this will be more work than she envisaged. It's enchantingly hilarious and moving.

Lou Clarke has kept quiet since a traumatic event in her younger years. When she loses her undemanding job at a teashop, she needs a replacement PDQ to keep paying her way at home. A job as a companion to a handsome posh man, paralysed in a skiing accident, might be the thing, but neither Lou nor her new charge, Will, could foresee just how much. This is the first book in an addictive, compelling trilogy.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Martha, our sharp and wry narrator, is a complete nightmare to live with. We see this with her husband, family, and relationships, and we grow to understand how her sister’s fecundity interweaves with Martha’s infertility, and her undiagnosed mental conditions overlap with her mother’s addiction. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand here, and Mason’s screamingly funny and deeply touching novel clasp them together masterfully.

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