I didn’t know the playwright Samantha Ellis before my eyes fell on the cover of her book in NetGalley —How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much. The cute artwork, featuring the spine of much-loved books, grabbed my attention. I confess that once I read the cover copy, I felt like this book had been written for me.
You feel like Ellis is having an intimate conversation with you over the book she reread in her mid-thirties, books you both loved: Anne of Green Gables, Ballet Shoes, Little Women, The Bell Jar, and Jane Eyre (sigh!). She confesses: “Reading that pile of books again, I realised that some of my heroines had misled me, some now seem irrelevant, some I had wildly misread, some I now regret. But many — most – were a pleasure to meet again.”
You embark on a reading journey with Ellis. It starts when she tells you about her first literary obsessions: Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. After a look at the different depictions of the fairy tale characters, she’ll make you chuckle by admitting her life “would have been different if [she’d] known Disney’s Little Mermaid, not Andersen’s.” She grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish and, like the sad mermaid, felt “caught between two worlds”: her parents’ homeland and England (where she didn’t quite fit in her youth). Ellis’ personal history continues to be revealed as she compares her life choices and obstacles to those of the many heroines in her cherished books.
She was a precocious girl reading Jane Austen novels while most of her peers (and me) were reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In fact, she probably read most of the book I read in my late teens and early twenties when she was a 12-year-old girl. This detail probably explains why she had misread so many of the heroines during first reads (and excuses the fact that she had preferred Cathy over Jane in the never-ending Brontë sister debate).
The writer quotes lines by Anne Shirley (“The worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop, and that hurts.”) and by Mr. Darcy (“We neither of us perform to strangers”), then explains how those words influenced her life. She makes you laugh when joking about puffed sleeves, remembering 80’s Timotei shampoo commercials, calling Rhett Butler a metrosexual, and taking a jab at the worst-named character in the history of the world (Take a wild guess. It was Stefanie Meyers’s bright idea.). She tugs at your heartstrings when talking about a wedding cake, seizures, and her mother’s plight. When Samantha Ellis writes, “I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time,” you’ll nod in agreement, take another sip of tea, and wish Samantha could be your new best friend.
How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much
By Samantha Ellis
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 272 pages.
The hardcover edition is already available in Canada. The paperback edition will be available next month in Canadian and U.S. bookstores.
*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*