Gillian Duncan is a news reporter for The National
East Lynne by Ellen Wood (1861)
A so-called Victorian sensation novel, East Lynne was a best-seller in its day but most now will have never heard of it. One critic called it one of the most famous unread works in the English language. About a female aristocrat who leaves her husband for the man she had an affair with and the tragedy that unfolds as a result, it may get a little far-fetched, but it’s a very good read.
Wench by Dorothy Perkins-Valdez (2009)
About an Ohio resort pre-US Civil War for slave owners and their enslaved mistresses, Wench explores that relationship from another angle. Lizzie loves, or thinks she loves, her master. Partly based on fact – the resort existed – we see Lizzie’s views of her master change as learn more of their relationship. At the end, we wonder why she loved him at all.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
This is another Victorian novel with a long-suffering heroine. About Isabel, an American woman who is left a large inheritance and is manipulated by those around her, the novel is about her realisation and the choices that follow. A word of warning, you may not like the ending – I don’t know many people who do – but it’s hard to see how it could have been different, considering.
Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)
At first sight this is book about a 5-year-old boy and his perspective on his very unconventional life. Jack’s mother was kidnapped when she was 19 and they both live in their captor, Old Nick’s, attic as prisoners. And part of the book’s triumph is that Donoghue writes Jack’s voice so well. Room is really about Ma and the sacrifices she makes so they survive.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
You have probably read this already, and if you haven’t, you should. It starts off as one story – a marriage between a seemingly aggressive and moody man with a perfectionist wife – and ends in something altogether different. I won’t say what in case you haven’t read it, but it is a great exploration of how people are not always as they first seem, and the sacrifices we make for others.