How to Be a Heroine

by Samantha Eliis
First sentence: “A couple of summers ago, I was on the Yorkshire moors, arguing (over the wuthering) with my best friend about whether we’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Ernshaw.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful — not more than six — of f-bombs and some mentions of sex, but nothing graphic. It’s in the adult creative nonfiction section of the bookstore, but I’d give this to anyone in high school and up.

Somehow, I ended up with a complimentary copy of this book. I really have no idea how it ended up on my pile. I do know the idea of it (and the subtitle: “Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much”) appealed to me. Any book that is about books or the love of reading has to be good, right?

And it was.

The book is nominally a reflection of Ellis’s life. She’s an Iraqi Jew, living in London, with all the cultural and religious implications you’d think that entails. She struggled against expectations, she struggled with faith, she struggled to find her own path. And, on its own that would be a fascinating story. But she framed the book with an analysis, heavily feminist, of classic heroines. From familiar to me ones like Jo March and Anne Shirley and Jane Eyre to ones I’ve never heard of, like Franny Glass and Esther Greenwood. She explored their narrative arcs, and what she took away from their stories. Both when she was younger and then, as an adult, how she feels the held up. Some did. A lot didn’t. And many she got something different out of the book than what she got when she was younger. She discovered new things along the way, and made me want to revisit books I’d loved when I was younger and read ones I’ve not read before.

And for all the literary criticism, it wasn’t a stuffy book. Ellis has a way of drawing the reader in, of making the characters pop to life. Perhaps that’s because she’s a playwright and has a way with words as it is. But whatever the reason, this one won my heart over.

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