Books featuring seasoned female protagonists

"A notice in The Times addressed to 'Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine' advertises a "small medieval Italian Castle to be let for the month of April'." Four very different women take up the offer." An endearing classic.
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Early tragedy forged a strong bond between the four Skinner siblings, but it also broke them in ways that don’t become apparent for many years, when another unfolding tragedy makes them question everything they know about their family. A sweeping family saga.
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The first novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead. Despite the novel's title, the story is one of loneliness, transience, and loss. Set in the isolated (and imaginary) town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Robinson unfolds the story of two sisters and the stream of temporary caregivers that enter their lives, one after another, after the death of their mother and grandmother.
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Private investigator Celine is a recovering alcoholic with emphysema who specializes in finding missing persons. When a young woman asks Celine to find her missing photographer father, Celine and her partner head to Yellowstone National Park, where it becomes clear someone wants this man to stay missing. Read this for the way Heller writes about nature and explores the intersection of family, privilege, and the secrets we keep.
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This psychological mystery features a deeply unreliable narrator, but not for the usual reasons. The story focuses on Maud, an 81-year-old woman whose dementia is rapidly worsening. She's convinced her friend Elizabeth is missing, but because of the dementia, no one believes her—not the police, or her son, or her well-meaning daughter. But in moments of clarity, Maud becomes convinced that another life is at stake, and she has to untangle the mystery before she runs out of time. From Booklist (starred review): "Part mystery, part meditation on memory, part Dickensian revelation of how apparent charity may hurt its recipients, this is altogether brilliant."
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From the publisher: "This is the story of four people in late middle-age - Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia - whose chief point of contact is that they work in the same office and they suffer the same problem - loneliness. Lovingly, poignantly, satirically and with much humour, Pym conducts us through their small lives and the facade they erect to defend themselves against the outside world. There is nevertheless an obstinate optimism in her characters, allowing them in their different ways to win through to a kind of hope. Barbara Pym's sensitive wit and artistry are at their most sparkling in Quartet in Autumn."
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The author's working title (and desired title) for this work was Christina's World, named after the Andrew Wyeth painting so many of us fell in love with the first time we laid eyes on it. In this biographical novel, Kline upends the narrative, telling the story from the perspective of the portrait's subject, "middle-aged" spinster Christina Olson. This isn't a book that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. It IS probing, thought-provoking, and extremely discussable.
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This is the first written in the Miss Julia series. Author Ann Ross claims she tried to make the books stand alone titles, but she found that "as soon as I sit down to start a new story, one or more of [the characters will] pop up with a problem for [Miss Julia] to solve." From the publisher: "Miss Julia, a recently bereaved and newly wealthy widow, is only slightly bemused when one Hazel Marie Puckett appears at her door with a youngster in tow and unceremoniously announces that the child is the bastard son of Miss Julia's late husband. Suddenly, this longtime church member and pillar of her small Southern community finds herself in the center of an unseemly scandal-and the guardian of a wan nine-year-old whose mere presence turns her life upside down."
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From the publisher: "In California's central valley, five women and one man join to discuss Jane Austen's novels. Over the six months they get together, marriages are tested, unsuitable arrangements become suitable, and love happens. With her eye for the frailties of human behavior and her ear for the absurdities of social intercourse, Karen Joy Fowler has never been wittier nor her characters more appealing. The result is a delicious dissection of modern relationships. Dedicated Austenites will delight in unearthing the echoes of Austen that run through the novel, but most readers will simply enjoy the vision and voice that, despite two centuries of separation, unite two great writers of brilliant social comedy."
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I can't believe I didn't read this book years ago, because now that I've read it, it reminds me so much of my all-time faves Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, and Marilynne Robinson. I don't want to say too much, but I found this up-close look at an unlikely relationship between two long-time acquaintances in small-town Colorado completely absorbing, and Haruf hits just the right tone with his light touch. Listen to me recommend this book in Episode 84 of What Should I Read Next? to Shawn Smucker. This is definitely one of those books where the flap copy doesn't do it justice. This was my first Haruf novel, and I'll be reading more.
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San Francisco Chronicle describes the title character as "funny, wicked and remorseful, a red-blooded original. The book is a page-turner because of her." From the publisher: "Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn't always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance: a former student who has lost the will to live: Olive's own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse."
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A widower who was raised to believe in propriety above all falls hopelessly in love with someone who is completely wrong for him—at least by the standards of his small English village. A winsome story with an unlikely hero.
I've been thinking of reading this for a year, but a friend talked me into it, saying that every member of her diverse book club loved this—the twenty-somethings and the sixty-somethings. That got my attention. It's the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish takes a walk in late-night Manhattan, on a very specific mission. As she walks, she reflects on the life she's lived, the people she's known, and where things began to go wrong. This reminded me of J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements because of the strong women at the center of each.
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I’ll bet you weren’t assigned this breezy Cinderella-ish story set in 1930s Britain back in English class. When a placement agency sends unemployed Miss Pettigrew to the wrong address, she spends the day of her life with a glamorous nightclub singer, extricating her hour by hour from one scrape after another. Miss Pettigrew is light, charming and utterly delightful.
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From the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Accidental Tourist, a family drama about the quiet joys of making a life with the people you love—whether they’re family or not. Willa is a 61-year-old woman whose track record with men isn’t great, as we see through scenes set when she’s 11, 21, 41, and finally 61. They patronize her and expect to be waited on, while Willa doesn’t stand up for what she wants. Willa doesn’t even know what she wants. But then one day the phone rings, with news that her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise has been shot in Baltimore, and Denise’s daughter—presumably Willa’s granddaughter—needs someone to look after her. It’s a misunderstanding—these people are strangers to Willa—but she travels to Baltimore to lend a hand. Willa settles in to the rhythms of the family’s life, finding herself appreciated for herself for the first time. I enjoyed this quiet novel with characters you can root for (and root against, depending).
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Over her long career, Berg has consistently written strong female characters at many ages and stages. In this book, I appreciate her portrait of small town life, her recently widowed 55 year old protagonist, and the significance of different kinds of friendship to the story. When the main character was in a bad way, it wasn’t a man who came to her rescue—it was her friends. (Fun fact: Liane Moriarty cites Berg as her favorite author and early inspiration.)
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Bavarian widow moves to Sicily and rediscovers her love of living. "On her sixtieth birthday my Auntie Poldi moved to Sicily, intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view." So says Poldi's nephew Michael. But life gets in the way: when Poldi's handyman goes missing, Poldi resolves to find him—with the help of the sexy police Commissario and a host of quirky Italians. Her quest brings Poldi back to life, and all she loves about it—namely prosecco, men, and gossip. Big-hearted and funny, smart and escapist: it's like taking your own Italian vacation.
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Pilcher's novels are sometimes categorized as romance, but if you're not a fan of the genre, don't let that scare you off. This family saga tells the story of three generations of a modern British family, brought together again during a time of crisis, all of whom have been burned by love and must figure out how to move forward. Full of interesting, well-developed, flawed-but-likable characters. This is a great beach/travel read, but it's LONG, making it perfect for your ereader library. It's one of the top 100 novels in the BBC's Big Read.
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Barbara Kingsolver is a must-read author for me. I love her work, especially The Poisonwood Bible. At 466 pages, this is a long book, but I inhaled it. Kingsolver writes that she is explicitly addressing the events of her time, but she does that in part by looking back: her double narrative follows the life-changing decisions and uncertain times experienced by two separate families, one hundred years apart, who both live in the same home in Vineland, New Jersey. Kingsolver found one heck of a subject for the historical element, an American scientist I'd previously never heard of named Mary Treat. I loved the clever linking of the chapter titles—pick up the book and you'll see what I mean.
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