Mar 13 2014 3:50pm

Just Keep Swimming: Empowering Women’s Fiction

The Lost Husband by Katherine CenterClassifying a book by its genre can be both useful and detrimental. If you have a preference for a certain type of book, then this cataloguing easily helps you find it. But it also means that certain types of books are stereotyped. Most of us have read a wonderful romance book, and then recommended it to friends. It only takes them a moment to look at the label on the book stating “Romance” for them to dismiss it.

The same thing happens within a genre. Within the romance genre itself, there are numerous sub-classifications. When I was fairly new to romance, my guilty pleasures were Cinderella-type books with the theme of unjust oppression/typecasting to triumph rewards—very similar to the movie Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts. Typically, the heroine’s beauty attracted a hero, who then solved her problems. But the longer I have read romance, the more I am drawn to women who solve their own problems, leaving me with a defined preference for Women’s Fiction.

Now, before some of you think “oh, Women’s Fiction,” like your friends think “oh, Romance,” let me tell you why reading this genre can be so empowering.

Romance books validate the quote by Walker Percy —-“We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away,” while women’s fiction books expand on Albert Camus’s quote: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.”

Women’s Fiction books are the Rocky Balboa books of romance. Typically within the first couple of chapters, the main character has a life changing event. Life knocks her down. And she is sinking fast. She has to learn life’s important lessons, or in the words of Dory, “Just keep swimming.”

Where We Belong by Emily GiffinOf course, the heroine doesn’t always immediately come out swimming. Just like in real life, sometimes it takes her time to realize that even though a door has closed on her current life, a window has opened to a new beginning. And sometimes those news beginnings are pretty strange—like moving from the big town of Houston to a goat farm in Atwater, Texas, like Libby Moran does in The Lost Husband by Katherine Center, or bittersweet amid the turmoil, like Marian Caldwell experiences in Emily Giffin’s Where We Belong, when she finds the daughter she gave up for adoption on her doorstep.

Over the course of the book, the main character becomes stronger, wiser, and more self-confident. The lyrics for Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman” summarize it nicely. And that what makes women’s fiction books so empowering.

Sometimes the women are in desperate straits, having fought their whole life for so very little, only to have that taken away, like Cristy Haviland from Somewhere Between Luck and Trust by Emilie Richards:

No one knew her. To them she was a shabby, weary-eyed young blonde. No one knew she had just completed a prison term, or that she was the mother of a son she’d never held.

Or like Carmel, from Life Drawing for Beginners by Roisin Meaney, who used drugs to escape her early childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father. She wants better things for her son, but doesn’t have the education or means to dig her way out:

Coming off drugs as soon as she realized she was pregnant had been hard, it had nearly killed her, but she’d done it. She was ashamed that she’d turned to dealing, ashamed that she survived at the expense of others, but she couldn’t see a different way out. And if they hadn’t gotten the stuff from her, they’d have gone somewhere else…

And then Ethan had died, and she’d almost gone back then, she’d almost given everything up. She would have, if she hadn’t had Barry.

And realizing in the past few months that he’d soon be old enough to understand how his mother made her living, she’d decided to get out. That hadn’t been easy either, there had been plenty of inducements to stay, and it would be a lie to say she hadn’t been tempted.

The Life List by Lori Nelson SpielmanOther times the heroines have had many advantages, but have lost their way, and need a push to accept that they need not settle, like Brett Bohlinger from The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman.

“You must have been very confused today when your brothers received their inheritance, and you didn’t. And I can only imagine how angry you were when the top job was given to Catherine. Trust me. I know what I’m doing, and everything I do is in your best interest.”

Even though the stories usually deal with major life issues, the books are not all doom and gloom. Homelessness is treated with less desperation and a bit of humor as Kathryn Leigh Scott showcases in her book, Down and Out in Beverly Heels. The heroine, aging actress Meg Barnes, sleeps in her car but maintains her gym membership, thus using their showers to keep up appearances.

Sophie Kinsella’s books always make me laugh. Her heroines discover what is important in life, sometimes in the most unlikely places, like working as a country housekeeper. Which is what Samantha Sweeting does, when she is dismissed from her law firm, after just making partner, in The Undomestic Goddess.

One Mountain Away by Emilie RichardsBut no matter how that story is told, there is always a bit of wisdom. Something that encourages me and inspires me when dealing with my own trials and tribulations, no matter how small or large they might seem. Like the conversation between Charlotte Hale and Samantha Ferguson from One Mountain Away, another novel by Emilie Richards:

Charlotte leaned forward and told her the truth, because what would be the point of pretending now? ”Taylor learned to hold grudges by watching me. Do you know how much space they take up in your heart? When you let go of your grudges, you’re practically empty inside.”

“So you go looking for something else to fill the space. And I think you want your granddaughter and your daughter right here.” Samantha touched her chest with her fingertips.

Charlotte felt a lump growing in her throat. “I’m not sure it can happen. I think maybe I stepped over that line, the one that you didn’t. You pulled yourself back from your personal precipice, Sam. I may have fallen over mine.”

“Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.”

Charlotte tilted her head in question.

“I learned that in AA,” Samantha said. “You have to keep trying, because if you stop, you might miss something extraordinary, something that’s right around the corner.

What books have encouraged you to keep swimming?


Leigh Davis, Blogger

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Lee Brewer
1. LeeB.
Excellent blog! I do enjoy Roisin Meaney and Sophie Kinsella and Katherine Center and Emily Giffin. But re "swimming," an older women's fiction book that was excellent is "Night Swimming" by Robin Schwarz.
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
I like Kathleen Gilles Seidel's "Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige". Barbara Samuels also has great "pick yourself up and keep going" books.
3. Scarlettleigh
bungluna, Katherine Gilles Seidel's books have long been a favorite of mine.

LeeB. I haven't read Night Swimming - I will have to check it out.
Maggie Boyd
4. maggieboyd66
Sarah Addison Allen's "The Sugar Queen" is about a woman going on from a tough situation and so is "Lost Lake". I like both of those.
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