Some of the most fascinating characters in literature are those who dare to defy the status quo, something of which Paulo Coelho is well aware. In his latest novel, The Spy, the internationally bestselling author recounts the life of Mata Hari, a fascinating historical figure who became one of the most infamous women of the twentieth century. Mata Hari swiftly rose from poverty and obscurity to become the most celebrated dancer and courtesan in Paris. Sadly, her notoriety eventually contributed to her being accused of espionage at the height of World War I.
We felt inspired by Mata Hari’s daring, so we decided to compile a list of women in literature, both real and fictional, who have rebelled against convention in one way or another. From courtesans to scientists to intrepid adventurers, these women’s stories will appeal to reading groups everywhere.
The Spy by Paulo Coelho
“Coelho, whose books have sold more than two hundred million copies worldwide, has taken the Mata Hari story and fashioned it into a short dynamo of a novel.” —Los Angeles Times
When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men. But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs-Élysées, and accused of espionage.
Told in Mata Hari’s voice through her final letter, The Spy is the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.
“A suspenseful, compelling tale of courageous young women fighting for justice.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
Eager to escape life on her family’s farm, Alice Barrow moves to Lowell in 1832 and throws herself into the hard work demanded of “the mill girls.” The hours are long and the conditions are bad, but Alice soon finds a true friend in Lovey Cornell, a saucy, strong-willed girl who is outspoken about the dangers they face in the factories . . . and about Alice opening her heart to a blossoming relationship with Samuel Fiske, the handsome and sympathetic son of the mill’s owner.
But when Lovey is found dead under suspicious circumstances, a sensational trial brings the workers’ unrest to a boiling point, leaving Alice torn between finding justice for her friend and her growing passion for the man with whom she had no business falling in love.
“Lyrical. . . . A powerfully imagined work of fiction.” —The New York Times
There is her love affair with flying. There are her memories of the past: her childhood desire to become a heroine, her marriage to G.P. Putnam, who promoted her to fame but was willing to gamble her life so that the book she was writing about her round-the-world flight would sell out before Christmas. There is the flight itself—day after magnificent or perilous or exhilarating or terrifying day. And there is, miraculously, an island. And, most important, there is Noonan.
“Desert Queen, as timely as today’s headlines, plucks Gertrude Bell out of the shadow of Lawrence of Arabia.” —The Boston Globe
Here is the story of Gertrude Bell, who explored, mapped, and excavated the Arab world throughout the early twentieth century. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T. E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was at the time considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.
In this masterful biography, Janet Wallach shows us the woman behind these achievements—a woman whose passion and defiant independence were at odds with the confined and custom-bound England she left behind. Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history and as a woman whose life was both a heartbreaking story and a grand adventure.
“Spectacular. . . . A literary and human triumph.” —The New York Times Book Review
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
“Brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex.” —The Washington Post
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now. . . .
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, a dire warning, and a literary tour de force.
“Vivid and vivacious. . . . Davidson is as natural a writer as she is an adventurer.” —The New Yorker
Robyn Davidson opens the memoir of her perilous journey across seventeen hundred miles of hostile Australian desert to the sea with only four camels and a dog for company with the following words: “I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.”
Enduring sweltering heat, fending off poisonous snakes and lecherous men, chasing her camels when they get skittish and nursing them when they are injured, Davidson emerges as an extraordinarily courageous heroine driven by a love of Australia’s landscape, an empathy for its indigenous people, and a willingness to cast away the trappings of her former identity. Tracks is the compelling, candid story of her odyssey of discovery and transformation.
“Brilliant. . . . Extraordinary. . . . Delightfully, wickedly funny. . . . Powerful and disarming.” —The Washington Post
Geobiologist Hope Jahren has spent her life studying trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Lab Girl is her revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also a celebration of the lifelong curiosity, humility, and passion that drive every scientist. In these pages, Hope takes us back to her Minnesota childhood, where she spent hours in unfettered play in her father’s college laboratory. She tells us how she found a sanctuary in science, learning to perform lab work “with both the heart and the hands.” She introduces us to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab manager. And she extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, inviting us to join her in observing and protecting our environment. Warm, luminous, compulsively readable, Lab Girl vividly demonstrates the mountains that we can move when love and work come together.