What comes to mind when you think of women’s fiction? If the word is “predictable,” think again: Two fearless first-time novelists are turning tropes upside down.
In their first novels, authors Eliza Kennedy and Sarai Walker are pushing the boundaries of popular fiction with female-centered stories that blend dark twists and searing social commentary in ways that draw from literary fiction (Notes on a Scandal to Anna Karenina) and suspense (insert obligatory Gone Girl reference).
Lily Wilder, the charismatic narrator of Kennedy’s I Take You, is doubting her decision to marry—but not for the reasons you’d expect. Lily, a successful lawyer, isn’t worried that the ceremony won’t be picture-perfect or that her fiancé will run out on her: She’s afraid that marriage will cramp her not-exactly-monogamous lifestyle.
As for Plum Kettle, the overweight protagonist of Sarai Walker’s Dietland, the person who changes her life isn’t a man. It’s a mysterious young woman, who initiates the virtually housebound Plum (who is planning on having bariatric surgery) into a secret society of guerrilla fighters who are committing terrorist acts against the patriarchy. Targets range from gang rapists to a “Girls Gone Wild”-type filmmaker.
Lily and Plum are heroines who lie outside the social norms, both those of real life and those of women’s fiction. Lily loves her fiancé, Will, but she also loves sex—lots of it. She isn’t sure if she can change that about herself, or if she even wants to, although by accepting his proposal she’s signed on to try.
For her part, at more than 300 pounds, Plum is not conventionally beautiful, although it’s hard to say for sure since she is usually described through her own very critical eyes. Plum defines herself by her weight, hiding her body in shapeless, colorless clothes and spending years on thankless diets waiting for her skinny self—whom she calls Alicia—to emerge so she can finally start living.
Still, it’s not entirely unusual for stories to start out with women who are a little bit different. After all, that’s why their lives aren’t perfect, right? As the pages turn, you’re waiting for the moment when Lily and Plum transform, become what society expects—which makes you realize just how well-trodden the tropes of popular fiction can be. But as Dietland and I Take You approach their very different but equally satisfying conclusions, it becomes clear that this isn’t the point. Plum and Lily don't need to change—the world does.
Readers will find themselves cheering on these two truly unconventional heroines all the way to the last page—and be thinking about their choices long afterward.