Book Review: How To Be a Heroine

I don’t write a lot of in-depth book reviews these days. Part of it is practical: with three kids home for the summer, a novel due by the end of the year, and assorted smaller projects, there just isn’t time. I do always give a star rating on Goodreads; Amazon is a non-starter these days, given their arcane rules for who can review what.

The other part is that often, I simply don’t have anything interesting to say. You can love a book to death, and not be able to muster anything that isn’t trite or obvious. And if you do love a book, it deserves better than that.

That said, I recently read How to be a Heroine or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, by Samantha Ellis, and I couldn’t wait to review it.

I bought this book on one of those whims that strikes sometimes, when you see a book that ordinarily would be far outside your interests but for some reason just immediately grabs you. It serendipitously matched up with two ongoing conversations I’ve been having, one about the word “heroine,” one about what stories I plan to share with my daughter as she grows up.

What I never expected was how eminently, enjoyably readable the thing would be. How readable? I bought it on Sunday, and finished it by Tuesday night. And that’s with the kids all home, and my wife away on a business trip. I found myself reading at every spare moment.

Ellis is a British playwright from an Iranian Jewish family, and growing up she used a succession of literary heroines as templates for her life. Prompted by a visit to the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, she re-examines these characters as an adult, and finds surprises both pleasant and unpleasant.

And funny. Ellis’s voice is wryly observational, and so the humor–never overt jokes–rises naturally from whatever she’s discussing. If you’re going to accompany a writer on a cruise through a dozen novels in search of what they can tell her about herself, it really helps to have an amusing tour guide.

A lot of the characters she discusses I’d never thought about, or certainly not in any depth (for example, I’ve never read Valley of the Dolls). She pegs some things I’d always thought, specifically about Jo March from Little Women and Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm. But she also introduced me to novels I’d never heard of but intend to track down, especially Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield (and its sort-of predecessor, The Whitcharts). And she made me want to re-read Jane Eyre, something I would’ve previously bet would never happen.

As a writer, I probably approach this sort of book differently than a more casual reader. I’ve given a lot of thought to the nature of heroes and heroines. In fact, when I teach my teen writing classes I tell them I don’t like the word “heroine”: a character is either the hero of the story, or they’re not. Gender is irrelevant. And all the characters mentioned by Ellis are definitely the heroes of their stories (although she makes the case for alternate readings in several instances).

SAMANTHA ELLIS by Nick Tucker-3I asked Ellis her thoughts on the issue, and she said, “I have mixed feelings about the words ‘heroine’ and ‘hero.’ I know some people say ‘hero’ for both but my feeling is that when we hear ‘hero’ we still think it’s a man. And so, I think, for now, I prefer to specify the gender. However, I am not consistent in this, as I would generally say ‘actor’ rather than ‘actress’…it’s a confusing area! I met someone who says ‘shero,’ which I don’t think is quite right either.”

I couldn’t help wondering, as I read How to be a Heroine, what readers thought about some of my “heroines.” Did Bronwyn Hyatt of The Hum and the Shiver inspire people? At least one reader told me that The Firefly Witch’s Tanna Tully touched her because she was a blind character not defined by her blindness. But what makes a female hero connect with readers the way these did with Ellis? Is it something that’s just truly out of the writer’s hands, a unique and individual thing that can’t be planned or done deliberately?

The book doesn’t answer those questions. But it has made me re-think what makes a hero (again, of either gender), and taken me on a grand literary tour. So I highly, highly recommend How to be a Heroine.

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