Book Review of “How to Be a Heroine: or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much” by Samantha Ellis.
Calling all women who read fiction: tell me, can you point to one female character from any book or story you’ve ever read and say, “Yes, that’s me” or even “Yes, that’s who I want to be like”? If you can’t, or if you once had one but now, you realize she’s not exactly right, you should read this book. This is what Samantha Ellis sets out to investigate after her best friend challenges her when she says Cathy Earnshaw is her ultimate heroine, and suggests Jane Eyre in her stead. This revolutionary idea was the beginning of Ellis’ search to find out which of these literary females she was not only most akin to, but also which one she really wanted to be like.
To do this, Ellis looks at a huge selection of women and girls portrayed in fiction from Sleeping Beauty to Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games,” with dozens in between, with both her tender heart and her critical eye. What’s more, she also looks at the writers behind these characters, looking to see if their own personal histories could give us clues as to why they gave these women both their strengths and their flaws. This is also Ellis’ own personal coming-of-age story, starting with the books of her childhood through to today, on a journey of discovery along her life via the many heroines she both loved and hated along the way.
The first thing you’ll notice about this book is that Ellis is extremely well read. Although I’m an avid reader myself, I am also mildly dyslexic and therefore a slow reader, and this book proved just how many holes that put into my own literary education (and I’m nearly 30 years her senior). Thankfully, Ellis included many books I was well familiar with, but reader beware – in several instances, in order to make her point, she includes some spoilers (most, without warning), which I found somewhat disconcerting for those books I’ve never read. Despite this, there were several books on her list that I’m now sorely tempted to read, and other books that I thought were missing.
While Ellis never hides the fact that this is her story, her life and her heroines, she also asks the types of questions that most women who grew up with these books might (or perhaps should) have been asking themselves all along. Among these questions are such things as what have 21st century women learned from these books regarding how we behave vs. how we want to live our lives, and which of these characters inspire or hold us back from being the best type of women we can be. She also wonders about how these characters and their authors look at love, men, and their role in achieving happiness, as well as the obstacles they can pose along our path to personal fulfillment.
Interestingly enough, the one question Ellis doesn’t ask is whether we ever even looked at these fictional women as role models for our own lives. This question occurred to me as I was reading this book, mostly because I don’t think I ever looked at any fictional character in this way. For me, novels have always been a way to enter into the many worlds that authors have to offer. Their characters are human beings, with all strengths and weaknesses that come with that. How they conducted themselves, the situations they found themselves in and what they wanted from their lives, were things that I related to on a fictional level, but never in comparison to my own world, life and dreams. Sure, some of them made me envious, and some even made me angry regarding their choices and paths, but I don’t believe the heroines of the books I read ever had any influence on my own life (aside from encouraging me to read more), and maybe that was a good thing, because it certainly feels that way.
This doesn’t mean that Ellis’ journey wasn’t a fascinating one; it only means that I didn’t see a parallel one for my life. Even so, I could still relate to her razor-sharp analysis of these characters and their authors, and I particularly enjoyed how she tore apart the heroines that disappointed or upset her, while trying to understand why these women were written in those ways (I can just imagine what she might have said about Anastasia Steele of the 50 Shades books and their author E.L. James). This is why I think that any fiction-reading feminist will find this an absorbing read, even if they’ve never aspired to live the life of their favorite protagonist(but especially if they have), and that’s why I’m giving this book a strong four out of five stars and can warmly recommend it.
“How to be a Heroine: or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much” by Samantha Ellis, published by Vintage Books, released February 3, 2015 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes, the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a copy of this book for review via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.