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Mon December 19, 2011

Hell-Raising Heroines: Three Ladies With Spitfire

Originally published on Wed January 4, 2012 4:19 pm

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.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Now the latest entry in our series Three Books where authors talk about three books on one theme. Today, the antidote to a recent trend in fiction, the painfully perky female character. Author Heather Havrilesky recommends the stories of three leading ladies who kick and scream their way to the very last page.

HEATHER HAVRILESKY: 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 anti-heroine. She's a female, short in temper and long in neurotic tics, whose life is defined by her worst choices.

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.

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.

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's arrogant yet horribly insecure. 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. 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 over-thinker 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. 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 anti-heroine 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.

BLOCK: Heather Havrilesky is the author of the book "Disaster Preparedness." She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times magazine.

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