My favorite fiction blends comedy and tragedy, operating in the space where humor meets pain. From a blistering exploration of fertility and fame, to a coming-of-age story about a Hasidic woman with a porn addiction, to a Jewish steampunk World War II novel, the books in this list examine and subvert expectations of femininity. Whatever your mood, I know there will be something here for you.
The Collected Stories, a compilation of The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later The Same Day, showcases Paley at her best. A master of narrative compression, Paley wrote stories that crackle with a blend of humor and heartbreak.
Take this summary of a marriage, from the story “Wants”:
In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams for dinner.
That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore. But you’re right. I should have had them to dinner.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
“There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them,” reads the opening line of this novel. Infamous immediately upon publication for its explicit depiction of female sexuality, Fear of Flying tells the story of a twenty-nine-year-old poet, Isadora Wing, who is on a quest for self-discovery — and great sex.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
When she is seven months pregnant, Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband is in love with another woman. Rachel’s attempts to make sense of the dissolution of her marriage and move forward with her life are both hilarious and moving, and interspersed with recipes (Rachel writes cookbooks for a living). Never has a funnier novel about divorce been written.
Happy All the Time and Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin
Don’t let the titles mislead you — the characters in Colwin’s novels are no Pollyannas.
Happy All the Time tells the story of two cousins, Vincent and Guido, who fall in love with two very different, headstrong women whom they struggle to understand.
Family Happiness follows the midlife crisis of Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, who lives an apparently charmed life in Manhattan, with a tight-knit family, a lawyer husband, and two children, until she finds herself having her first affair and questioning all the ways she is taken for granted. Laurie Colwin writes about domestic life and imperfect relationships with great wit and insight, and the experience of reading her work is comforting, like a literary chicken soup.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
In this sharp and moving comedy of manners, a famous novelist named Joe Castleman is on the verge of receiving a major literary award. The only thing standing in his way: his wife, Joan. After decades of subjugating her literary ambition to support her husband, Joan has finally had enough.
The Book of Esther by Emily Barton
The question at the center of Barton’s imaginative third novel is, what if an empire of Jewish warriors that really existed in the Middle Ages had never fallen — and was the only thing left standing between Hitler and his conquest of Russia? It’s 1942 in Khazaria, a Jewish warrior-state located between Germany and Russia, and Esther, the daughter of the country’s chief policy adviser, sets out on a journey to find a fabled Kabbalist village, in hopes of convincing them to turn her into a man, so that she can fight for her country.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Rachel, the twenty-four year old narrator of Broder’s second novel, is a lapsed Jew who worships at the altar of calorie counting. Shortly after her therapist prompts her to take a ninety day break from communication with her overbearing mother, she meets Miriam, a zaftig Orthodox woman who works at Rachel’s favorite frozen yogurt shop. An unexpected romance follows, and Rachel learns to embrace her appetite in all its forms.
Human Blues by Elisa Albert
Albert’s new novel, told over the course of nine menstrual cycles, is a furiously funny maximalist investigation of female ambition and the fertility-industrial complex. Aviva Rosner, a singer-songwriter about to release her fourth album, is struggling mightily with infertility. But much as she wants a baby, she’s opposed to technological conception. As her album (aptly titled Womb Service) makes its way into the world, Aviva interrogates just what she’s willing to do to get what she wants.
Shmutz by Felicia Berliner
Berliner’s debut novel, which has perhaps the most inventive cover I’ve seen this year, is a coming of age story about a young Hasidic woman with a secret porn addiction. Berliner probes the tensions of being caught between worlds in a way that’s simultaneously funny and sincere.
Isabel Kaplan graduated from Harvard and holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She is the author of the national bestselling YA novel Hancock Park and a co-founder of Project 100, an organization launched after the 2016 election to support progressive women running for Congress. She previously worked in TV drama development at Fox Broadcasting Company. Isabel was born and raised in Los Angeles.