In this age of bland romantic comedy leads, when the feminine ideal seems to mix two parts sweetly smiling Jennifer Aniston with three parts saucer-eyed Rapunzel, nothing can bring more satisfaction than the antiheroine.
She's a woman, short in temper and long in neurotic tics, whose life is defined by her worst choices. If she's not insecure and sharp-tongued, she's prone to extended sulky spells. If she's not marrying an arrogant man, she's becoming an arrogant married man's mistress. Maybe she's young and hopelessly narcissistic, yet endlessly rejectable. Maybe she's older than is demographically desirable, but far less wise than she feels she should be by now. No matter. We love her for her flaws.
Teddy, the protagonist of Kate Christensen's riveting novel The Great Man, not only shamelessly flaunts her status as the mistress of a legendary New York artist, but she doesn't even consider making apologies to his wife after he dies. At 74, Teddy steadfastly refuses to become the dignified shell of a woman that society expects of her. When she isn't flirting openly with her dead lover's biographer, she's musing vainly over her figure. The other women in her lover's life — his loyal but put-upon wife and his competitive, bitter sister — mirror much of Teddy's verve and stubbornness. Incredibly, Christensen manages to make all of these sharp, older women frustrating yet eminently lovable. Not only is The Great Man studded with moments of surprising generosity, but slowly, these fascinating antiheroines upstage and outshine the man who brought them together.
Next we come to what may be the single most detestable female character ever created: Harriet, the protagonist of Iris Owens' 1973 novel After Claude. She is arrogant yet horribly insecure; dismissive and contemptuous; yet needy and pathetic. She is disgusted with everyone around her, yet she begs hideously for their acceptance. But even as her situation goes from bad to unthinkable (and her behavior goes from desperate to unseemly to horrifying), Harriet reflects something essential about how it feels to be a single female. Her rage at male arrogance and fear of being alone vividly conjure those lowest moments in a woman's life when her salvation appears inextricably linked to an indifferent man. This book is an absolute must-read for every smart, moody woman who's ever been told she loves too much or thinks too much.
Phyllis Theroux may be the biggest overthinker of them all — and that's saying a lot among this neurotic bunch. The author (who is also, oddly enough, Jennifer Aniston's possible future mother-in-law) has written a memoir called The Journal Keeper that's everything we're told a memoir shouldn't be — rambling, self-indulgent and only loosely chronological. Luckily, Theroux has plenty of courage in her convictions, revealing a rich inner life that might never be as colorfully expressed in a more traditional format. She struggles mightily against her own worst impulses in order to gain a higher level of consciousness, deftly outlining periods of darkness and moments of insight. The irony of it all? This book will make you wish you were Jennifer Aniston, so that you might spend more time in the company of a sometimes irascible, always large-hearted antiheroine like Phyllis Theroux.
Because in a world dominated by perky little girls with sunny dispositions and endless wells of optimism, nothing soothes the soul quite like a foul-tempered old lady ... spitting fire.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of Disaster Preparedness. She is also a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva, with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.