Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

For a reader, Samantha Ellis' subtitle tells the true story of this book. It's actually called How to Be a Heroine, Or, What I've Learned From Reading Too Much. The author and playwright looks back at the books and heroines she's loved over the years, in order to analyze her own life.

It all started with an argument about Wuthering Heights with her best friend, Emma. Emma challenged her. Why did she like Cathy Earnshaw so much, and not Jane Eyre? Ellis was stunned. "My whole life, I'd been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane." When she realized that, Ellis went back to meet all her old heroines again, beginning with her earliest ones. She wanted "To think about what they meant to me when I was growing up."

Ellis looks at all of those early heroines and puts them in context. She was growing up in an Iraqi Jewish community in London. Her mother has been a heroine, imprisoned for twenty days when trying to escape Iraq. But, Ellis didn't want to be her mother. She went from reading fairy tales about princesses to reading about heroines who were writers, and that's what she aspired to be. But, as she looks back at Anne of Green Gables and Jo March from Little Women, she's sees them now as characters who compromised and settled when they married. For a while, Lizzy Bennett from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice became her role model. The author covers everything she read and admired, from Gone With the Wind to Valley of the Dolls and feminist writing, and back to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

As Ellis expounds on the heroines she admired over the years, she also discusses her own life, her romances, her rebellious years, her college and working life. The book is fascinating, both for its analysis of her readings, and the comparison to her own life. In the end, though, it's one sentence that sums up the readings, her life, and, in many ways, the life of so many readers. "I'm beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time."

Samantha Ellis' website is http://www.samanthaellis.me.uk

How to Be a Heroine, Or, What I've Learned From Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis. Vintage Books. 2015. ISBN 9781101872093 (paperback), 272p.

*****
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

10 comments:

Janet C said...

OK. I think I need this book.

Beth Hoffman said...

Great review, Lesa. I have the feeling I'd enjoy this one so it's going on my list.

Lesa said...

If you "need" this book, Janet, I wish you good luck!

Lesa said...

I really appreciated the character analysis from the author's viewpoint, Beth.

Libby Dodd said...

Fascinating concept. And it sounds like it is well done.

Lesa said...

It is well done, Libby. Enjoyable book.

Nancy said...

You have me thinking about the books and heroines I've read over my many years, Lesa, and how much I really remember.

Lesa said...

The book really made me think, Nancy. I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre when I was a young teen. I don't remember the characters at all the way this author does. I just don't remember them with the depth of perception she has.

Reine said...

I love the title. It says so many different things at the same time. Intriguing.

I don't remember having any insight about meaning as a teenage reader. Much like now, I wanted a good story. The classics bored me as a teenager, although I did skip a day of school to read David Copperfield which I started at breakfast and couldn't stop reading. It was a good story to me, but I had none of those over-arching societal thoughts about class and justice. Nothing beyond "oh poor kids." I didn't get any of it until much later. It was obvious the books I'd read had truly affected me, but I had internalized it in such a way that I didn't connect the dots. Did not consciously project beyond "we are lucky kids today. Glad I wasn't born back then."

Lesa said...

I am so with you, Reine. I just read them as stories, too. And, that's still how I read, in most cases. That's why I don't often lead a book discussion group. I don't want to tear the book apart. I want to enjoy the book.