I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Joan Didion famously said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I would simply amend this to say that we also READ stories to find WAYS to live. Looking for ways to live in fictional lives is not uncommon, though how many look to individual characters and how many to stories in general is harder to guess. I fall into the latter camp, but Ellis certainly into the former.
Samantha Ellis is a playwright of Jewish-Iraqi descent whose life has been shaped by her family’s expatriate experience, but also by her own reading life. How to be a Heroine is essentially the story of Ellis’ life so far, as seen through the heroines she encountered during specific periods in her life, and later through revisiting as a more experienced adult. The story begins with an argument between Ellis and a friend, debating the supremacy of Catherine Earnshaw vs. Jane Eyre. Ellis always considered herself Team Cathy, but began rethinking her stance as her friend gave her a new conception of the character. This reevaluation made her question all of her former heroine allegiances, and hence this undertaking: to revisit the formative heroines of her youth and see how they stand up to a fresh perspective.
While reading, I tried to think back to my experience with heroines. Did I ever use them as examples or role models or warnings? I’m sure I must have- I have distinct memories of strong feelings about many heroines, but no memory of having put theory into practice in any purposeful way. Unlike Ellis, I never liked Cathy Earnshaw; I thought she deserved Heathcliff, and that is not a compliment. I did have a grudging and conflicted admiration for Scarlett O’Hara, even at the age of 12 when I first read Gone with the Wind (and most of the troubling racial issues went right over my head). I also had a strong affinity for Jo March of Little Women, which I’m guessing is not uncommon for just about any girl that reads that book at the right time in her life. My focus was almost always on the books themselves, rather than the individual heroines, so I can’t say I ever looked for any kind of specific guidance from them as people or as women more specifically, with the exception of certain Jane Austen heroines. Of all the heroines I’ve read, Eleanor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet (also a favorite of Ellis), and Anne Elliot are the only ones I’ve ever looked to for guidance (or sympathy) as individuals.
Ellis, of course, did put theory into practice, and applied the lessons of her favorite heroines to her own life. The memoir using books/characters/writers as a lens is not new. The fact that this particular book stands out from many others that have attempted something similar is a testament to Ellis’ voice and the depth of her observations. Her love of literature, coupled with a warm, engaging style makes this feel more like an enjoyable book conversation with a friend than some attempt at armchair literary criticism. Ellis looks at a broad range of novels that were read at different points in her life. Many of them come from classic literature (Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, The Little Mermaid, Anne of Green Gables, etc.) and are easily recognizable even if you haven’t read the books, but others are more specific to time and place, like the romance novels Lace and Riders, which I had never heard of before picking up How to be a Heroine. Her range of choices shows the fundamental honesty of her intentions in the project; if she were trying to slip a lot of intellectualism past the reader under the guise of memoir, she wouldn’t have selected some of the books she did. Rather, it is a genuine and unembarrassed look at all kinds of heroines that shape a readers life in a certain time and place. As it turns out, some of them did not retain their power after a rereading, but many of them did. And some, like Scheherazade, were latecomers and were added to an ever-growing list of fictional influences. After all, we never stop needing new heroines in our lives.
Cross-posted at Goodreads: How to be a Heroine