Franny Glass. Lucy Honeychurch. Anne Shirley. Jane Eyre. Those of us, and by "us" I mean women (sorry, gents), who have lived most of our lives with our noses pressed to a book will lose ourselves once again in playwright Samantha Ellis' literary memoir, "How to Be a Heroine."
Born into a family of Iraqi Jews in London, Ellis found her path determined by her family at an early age. She would grow up to marry a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, have lots of kids, and keep a tidy house and a happy husband. But as Ellis grew older she began to question her fate and sought refuge in a wide cast of characters that she connected with through reading.
When she reached her 30s, unmarried and without children, Ellis decided to return to the heroines of her youth and reread the books that had shaped the adult she had become. Would the books that she had loved as a child mean as much to her now?
The result is a delightful journey down the bookish rabbit hole of female characters and their creators. No novel is too high, or too low, for Ellis' taste. She explores the demons that haunt Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," as well as the complicated relationships of the group of women in Shirley Conran's 1983 "bonkbuster" (her term), "Lace." She draws parallels between the burning South of "Gone With the Wind," and her own mother's flight from Iraq to England. She found writerly inspiration in "Anne of Green Gables," and when she decided to pursue a life in the theater, a kindred spirit in Herman Wouk's "Marjorie Morningstar."
Let's face it: The word "heroine" often brings to mind a 19th-century lass hampered by a hoop skirt and tied to a train track. But Ellis deftly turns that image on its head by including fictional and real-life women as heroines, such as Patti Smith, Alice Walker, Scheherazade, Jacqueline Susann, and her own mother. She isn't afraid to create a "mash-up" of heroines, and writes that "maybe it's by appropriating our heroines that we become heroines ourselves."
Reading Ellis' book is like having a really dishy chat about everyone you've ever known: It's gossipy and personal and reveals the rich inner lives that we readers have cultivated with the help of writers over the years. Ellis has achieved the perfect blend of memoir, literary "criticism" (in the lightest sense of the word), and the comfort and guidance that only a good book can provide, and a seasoned reader can understand.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.