The most dangerous trait a woman can possess is curiosity. That's what myths and religion would have us believe, anyway. Inquisitive Pandora unleashed sorrow upon the world. Eve got us kicked out of paradise. Blight on civilization it may be, but female curiosity is a gift to narrative and the quality my five favorite heroines of the year possess in spades.
These women come to us from history, from a novel, from the pages of a diary and from an ancient poem. They're women who want to know things, who want to devour the world. Refreshingly, they aren't primarily defined by their desire to love or be loved — or even to be especially lovable — these are sublimely stubborn women, frequently at odds with themselves and always at odds with their times. They're on quests. Which isn't to say that these quests are necessarily successful (the heroines of one particular book were flamboyant failures). The outcome is immaterial; the wanting is all.
Sophie Calle: The Address Book
In 1983, the French artist Sophie Calle found a lost address book on a street in Paris. She rang up the people listed and asked about the owner of the book, whom she calls Pierre D. ("I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him.") She published her findings in a newspaper — to the outrage of the real Pierre, who threatened to sue. Calle agreed to hold off republishing the pieces until after his death.
Pierre died in 2005, and this book is now available in English. I'd foolishly worried that there would be something self-consciously whimsical, something Amelie about the project. But from the outset, Calle's inquiry is too serious and strange and plain difficult. A few people refuse to speak to her. Others agree to meet Calle, but can't recall Pierre. The testimonies add up; our quarry comes into focus then blurs again: He lives alone. His hair went white the week his mother died. He has conventional sexual fantasies. He wears ill-fitting clothes, like a clown. Assembling a personality from these shards is intoxicating, a bit like solving a mystery, a bit like falling in love. But whom are we falling in love with? Is it Pierre? Or is it our guide? The book includes photographs of the people, paintings and places dear to Pierre. The most arresting portrait is of a young woman — could it be Calle? — in profile, hiding her face behind long dark hair, inscrutable to the last.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980
The second volume of Susan Sontag's posthumously published journals picks up in New York in the '60s with the writer's reputation established and romantic life in shambles. It's a book in fragments: the "hot exhalations of the mind," images that gave her pleasure (the "pale pinkish brown color of stone houses" in Corsica), and some scabrous self-criticism. We see Sontag lie to herself ("I've constructed a life in which I can't be profoundly distressed or upset by anyone") and arrive at painful personal realizations.
Most of all, these journals are a portrait of a woman who was the custodian of her intellect. "I've got this thing — my mind. It gets bigger, its appetite is insatiable," she writes, and these pages — rife with lists of books to read, films she's seen, and words to learn — record how she fed it. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that Sontag burst on to the literary scene, "a cultural-critical Athena, armored with a vast erudition, bristling with epigrams". This book reminds us of the daily diligence this display required. "Buy a dictionary the size of an elephant," she ordered herself. "A writer, like an athlete, must 'train' every day. What did I do today to keep in 'form'?"
All We Know: Three Lives
Lisa Cohen gives us three stylish, independent heroines for the price of one in her triptych of women, once famous, now forgotten: Esther Murphy, a spellbinding conversationalist who never managed to produce the books her public so eagerly awaited; Madge Garland, a gifted editor at British Vogue; and Mercedes de Acosta, the "first celebrity stalker" who became the lover of the most glamorous women of her time, including Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan and Greta Garbo. The three women, who were intimates, moved in the lively and quarrelsome lesbian circles of early 20th-century New York, Paris and London, and Cohen vividly brings this world to life. She also makes an original and persuasive case for her subjects' métiers, the fleeting, trivialized forms of cultural production: conversation, collecting and fashion.
It's a gossipy, gorgeous, near-perfect biography that turns the form inside out. "I have wanted to make these three women visible again," Cohen writes. "But none of them thought herself in need of rescue. Each memorialized herself and colluded in her own invisibility."
Carry the One
Carol Anshaw's taut novel of how a horrific accident propels three siblings on very different courses has many qualities to recommend it. It's sharp and wise and manages the impossible: to write about sex in a genuinely sexy way. But most of all, it has Alice.
Alice is the rumpled, heroic soul of the book — and possibly the year's most purely sympathetic character. An artist desperately in love with her elusive model girlfriend, jittering with need and trauma, she and her sister Carmen are struggling to save their brother from tumbling further into addiction. (Anshaw, whose own brother struggled with addiction, unsparingly depicts what it means to lose a family member to drug dependency.) Hers is a journey of learning to live productively with great guilt, of the solace of work and art and sisterhood (Alice "pitied everyone who didn't have a sister.") Our siblings do much more than merely support us, they hone us, like steel sharpening steel.
In her new book, the poet and classicist Anne Carson remixes Sophocles' great tragedy, Antigone, with Hegel, Virginia Woolf and strains from her own life. The book is hand lettered, and Bianca Stone's surreal illustrations tell a story of their own: beautiful girls with cinderblock heads, tottering furniture, a shovel, a ladder, red thread pinioning a horse's hooves, red thread twining around spoons, red thread unspooling over the pages like a long trail of blood.
Antigone, our heroine, is "a person in love with the impossible." She is the daughter of Oidipus and sister to Eteokles and Polyneikes (Carson's own spellings) who have slain each other in battle. She defies her uncle Kreon's order to leave Polyneikes' body unburied, risking death by being buried alive. The book speaks to us in our own language — and cheekily references other interpretations of the play: ("Remember how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back" the chorus asks Antigone) — while matching the horror and heartbreak of the original. Realizing death is near, Antigone says:
"You ask would I have done it for a husband or a child my answer is no I would not. A husband or a child can be replaced but who can grow me a new brother. Is this a weird argument, Kreon thought so but I don't know. The words go wrong they call my piety impiety, I'm alone on my insides I died long ago."
Parul Sehgal is an editor at The New York Times Book Review and a frequent contributor to NPR.