A special treat for all fans of classic romances, strong female characters and brilliant adaptations, this list of modern and contemporary novels gives a second life to some of the most loved and known heroines in literature. From Austen’s Bennet sisters to India’s Draupadi, Brontë’s enigmatic Bertha Mason and more, these books are sure to be your next best date with some of the most enduring women in literature.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice”, Sittenfeld’s “Eligible” re-imagines the Bennets as they would exist in American society today. Set in contemporary Cincinnati, the story follows the Bennet sisters—fashion magazine writer Liz, yoga instructor Jane, psych major Mary, and cross-fitting constantly-texting teenagers Kitty and Lydia—as they navigate relationships, societal expectations, and modern-day challenges. Transporting the Regency-era business of husband-hunting and marriage markets into the modern-day world of reality TV dating shows, Sittenfeld’s “Eligible”, employs wit and humour as he delivers a fresh and entertaining take on Austen’s beloved tale of love and misunderstandings.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller’s “Circe” is a mesmerizing retelling of the mythological enchantress from Homer’s “Odyssey.” Narrated through Circe’s perspective, Miller weaves a tale of magic, love, and self-discovery as the immortal nymph struggles to find her place in a world dominated by gods and mortals. With lyrical prose and vivid storytelling, Miller breathes new life into an ancient myth, offering a feminist reimagining of a timeless character.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Postmodern author Zadie Smith’s adaptation of Forster’s “Howard’s End” is a richly layered novel that explores poignant themes of race, identity, and family dynamics. Set in the fictional town of Wellington, Massachusetts, the story follows the Belsey family—headed by art historian Howard Belsey—and their interactions with the Kipps family, led by conservative academic Monty Kipps. As the families become intertwined in personal and professional conflicts, Smith offers a provocative and insightful examination of contemporary life and culture.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A gripping and thought-provoking reimagining of “Antigone”, Shamsie’s “Home Fire” situates Sophocles’ tragic tale in the modern context of a multiracial English society. Set in contemporary Britain, the story follows the lives of siblings Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz, whose family becomes entangled in political and religious tensions surrounding terrorism and immigration. Shamsie’s powerful narrative explores themes of loyalty, identity, and the consequences of extremism, offering a timely reflection on the complexities of contemporary society.
Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
“Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a captivating retelling of the Indian epic “Mahabharata” from the perspective of its central female character, Draupadi. Set against the backdrop of ancient India, the novel follows Draupadi’s journey from her birth through her marriage to the five Pandava brothers and the subsequent events that lead to the great war of Kurukshetra. With lush descriptions and rich characterization, Divakaruni brings to life the epic tale of love, betrayal, and destiny.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
A modern classic and an essential contribution to postcolonial feminist literature, Jean Rhys’ haunting and lyrical novel serves as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s classic “Jane Eyre.” Set in Jamaica during the early 19th century, the story follows Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason)—a Creole heiress—whose marriage to the Englishman Mr. Rochester leads to tragedy and madness. Rhys offers a poignant exploration of colonialism, race, and identity through Antoinette’s haunting narrative, challenging the conventions of Victorian literature and giving voice to the marginalized.
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