Note: Okay readers, this is going to be a little different. Because this book was a memoir and not a work of fiction, the review formatting will different. There are no “characters” to judge or “plot points” to highlight. Also, I will not be rating memoirs. It just feels wrong to me to “grade” someone’s life. Anyway, without further ado:
How to Be a Heroine
By Samantha Ellis
While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirty-something playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she’s been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.
With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.
I have always been a fan of literary analysis and Ellis’s memoir does not disappoint! It’s not often that you read such insightful literary analysis coupled with personal anecdotes but it is a refreshing approach to a long-covered topic. The memoir is honest and unashamed when explaining the naïveté of youth and how, over time, Ellis realized that she had viewed so many of the heroines of her youth with rose-colored lenses.
It began with an argument with her closest friend over which heroine was greater: Jane Eyre or Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights). Ellis, who up until this point staunchly argues in favor of Cathy, is made to realize things about her heroine that she had never truly considered before. Wondering if more realizations would be made, Ellis sets out on a quest to rediscover the heroines she had loved growing up.
I truly enjoyed the connections Ellis made between her own life and that of the famous literary heroines we all know (and sometimes love). It was interesting to see how, like so many others, she identified with the characters so completely at certain points in her life and not at all at other points. It is proof that a book, and our experience of it, can change so significantly from one read to the next. Furthermore, it is proof that reading really is so very important and can shape who we become. Each reread, coupled with the circumstances Ellis faced in real life, expanded and cemented who she was as a person, a writer, and a feminist.
One of my favorite anecdotes was when Ellis turned to Sleeping Beauty and Elizabeth Bennet to cope with the demands of her religious family who wanted her to return home after college and marry a boy of their choosing. Her rereads inspired her to not only develop herself as a writer but to discover her love for the theater. This discovery led her down a path away from what her parents planned for her and toward a life that she would cultivate on her own, as a playwright and a feminist. She, like many of the heroines she covers in her memoir, realizes that happiness without a love interest is still happiness.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Ellis’s memoir. I will put out a warning though. She does write in depth about the plot lines of numerous classic novels. Those who don’t mind spoilers, like me, read on without concern. But if you are a stickler for spoilers, I would encourage you to skip the chapters that discuss the books you have yet to read. Either way, I still encourage you to read the memoir!
Have you read this memoir? What did you think of it?