When We Lost Our Heads – Heather O’Neill

Simply put, this is a wonderful book about compelling and complex women in Montreal at the end of the 19th century. Men in the story are mostly inconsequential, despite some appallingly boorish behaviour. Marie and Sadie are best friends as children, but theirs is a classic love-hate relationship (“Every decent friendship comes with a drop of hatred. But that hatred is like honey in the tea. It makes it addictive”). Marie is spoiled and entitled; Sadie is subversive and dangerous. Ms. O’Neill‘s writing is enchanting with exquisite similes describing disparate worlds: life in a brothel, exploitive factory work (the Squalid Mile). Female relationships are infinitely complex with righteous anger, pettiness and jealousy, and a self-absorbed woman who has no empathy toward other women. Powerful feminist themes abound: the invisibility of marriage, sexual awareness leading to female empowerment. And finally, anticipate a late plot twist and an extraordinary ending. This is O’Neill at her best, a Montreal noir story.

City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert

In 2010,  a very old woman, Vivian, receives a letter with a question: “If you now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?” Thus begins a long remembering of Vivian’s life, starting in New York as a 20-year old in 1940. Vivian is the epitome of white privilege, a delightfully hedonistic person with self-deprecating humour. The description of the NY theatre scene in the 40s is fabulous. Overall a recounting of both strong and toxic female relationships for a completely entertaining story. Thanks Amy.

My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell

Trigger warning: this a disturbing story about sexual abuse, an inappropriate and illegal relationship between a 42-year old teacher at a high school and a 15-year old female student. After a year, the young girl lies; she states that accusations of an inappropriate relationship are a fabrication by her and so she is expelled. Thus the teacher is not revealed as a manipulative pedophile because the young girl, a naive child really, protects him; she believes that the teacher loves her and that everything done to her was consensual. And when she turns 18, she re-initiates a relationship that proceeds on and off for 15 years! This is a complex telling of complicated relationships. Be prepared for some tough reading – the emotions are presented graphically and honestly. Given these warnings, this book should be required reading in this #MeToo era.

The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

Simply put, this is a brilliant book, one of Atwood’s best. Three women (Tony, Charis and Roz) are each linked to Zenia, a brilliant and beautiful woman who is manipulative and ruthless. Over three decades, Zenia exerts considerable damage by creating really toxic relationships, but all three women remain in thrall, under a spell, beguiled. Even though Zenia’s lies and cons become obvious she somehow retains their sympathy while betraying their trust and treating male partners as loot. Fantastic story-telling.