Check Out These 6 Lesser-Known Books by Prolific American Authors
You know their more famous work, but these are not to be missed!
One of my many failed 2021 reading goals was completing six books written by women before I was born. I failed by only getting to three, and also noticed that two of those three were from the same author, whose work I’m now very interested in. This is because I was sidetracked when I found someone (included on this list) that I connected with and wanted to read more of—not because I was attached to a character, but instead, an idea. So, while I failed my own challenge, ultimately, it was kind of a win.
These journeys aren’t always available to go on with a single author. Sometimes the author passes away before completing another novel, or others publish their story after their death. However, many semi-contemporary writers (talking 1900 and forward) continued to write, yet they’re known for one book—not even one genre, which is perfectly fine, but just one book. Maybe it’s because it was adapted into a major film or read in school, but whatever the case, it winds up unfairly outshining the rest of their work.
To combat this in a familiar and less intimidating way, I took six American women known for writing one very studied, assigned, shared and/or adapted work and paired them with a sister novel published from 1920–2020. To help narrow it down, I limited the list to a handful of authors known for their fiction novels, so just know that you won’t find your favorite poet, playwright, or essayist here.
These books feature similar themes to their better-known “sister” novels, like what it means to belong and the complicated nature of familial bonds. While all are considered classics or literary fiction, many of these books also feature storytelling elements and genre play found in their other works.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Just fifty pages longer than her most famous novel (Passing), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand features similar themes and more autobiographical elements to the story. If you haven’t read Passing for some reason, we recommend picking up a copy with both titles, but Quicksand deserves your attention either way.
This story starts with our light-skinned, biracial protagonist, Helga, teaching at an all-Black school in the south. She feels disconnected from her place and moves to Harlem and, later, Denmark in search of a space where she feels most welcome and fulfilled. While race dynamics and questions are the book’s central focus, the “expectations” versus “reality” in regards to race and class is something many people will connect with in Helga.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
Though today she is one of the most recognizable names in African American literature, Hurston was at odds with many of her peers at the time (politically and stylistically), and her popularity faded near the end of her career. Her legacy exists today thanks to writers (such as Alice Walker) and historians, and her work is still being published today, like Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick (2021).
Before Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston wrote this semi-autobiographical novel about a Black family migrating for better opportunities and a fresh start. Jonah’s Gourd Vine tells the story of the philandering pastor John Buddy Pearson. In the novel, Hurston explores the limitations of faith and good intentions regarding spiritual and physical tension.
The Price of Salt or Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Known for her crime novels and physiological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt in 1952. This novel is one of the first lesbian novels (not just queer-coded) to have a happy ending. Pressured by her publishers and another not to hurt her career by attaching her name to lesbian fiction, Highsmith wrote it under the pen name Claire Morgan. Around 1990, she would republish it as what is known now as Carol, with her name as the author.
Two women of different economic classes (the wealthy Carol and the struggling Therese) abandon daily routines in favor of a chance at love and bliss with one another. The husband that Carol is in the legal process of divorcing (Harge) begins to suspect his wife of being with another woman and gathers evidence to use against her in the custody battle for their child.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
Like Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter examines the common fragile relationships between mothers and daughters. After reading The Joy Luck Club, please check out the movie, as it features legendary actress Na-Ming Wen (of Star Wars, Mulan, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and so many, much more).
Ruth Young (American-born Chinese) and her widowed immigrant mother, LuLing, have a barely functioning mother-daughter relationship. As LuLing begins to lose her memories and suffer from dementia, Ruth reads some of her mother’s writings. Here, Ruth pieces together LuLing’s past and reveals a side of LuLing that Ruth never knew.
Carmelo by Sandra Cisneros
Known by many readers for her coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street, Cisneros—alongside Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima—is where many Millennials and Gen Zers are introduced to Chicanx literature (sometimes interchangeable with Mexican-American). While sometimes she has some takes, Cisneros is a staple of this literary movement and continues to write today.
First published in the early 2000s, Carmelo follows Lala and her large multi-generational Mexican-American family as they drive from Chicago to Mexico City to visit her grandparents for their yearly summer visit. Ever observant, Lala begins to piece together what events led to her grandmother being so awful, but is accused of spreading lies.
Love by Toni Morrison
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison is known for two big novels, Beloved and The Bluest Eye. As in these novels and more, she confronted race, class, and gender politics in stories that captivated millions.
Love shares the lives of three generations of women and their relationship with the since-passed, charismatic hotel owner Bill Cosey. While there are no ghosts like in Beloved, the character of Cosey is pieced together through the perspective of the women in his life. While the tensions and wounds of the past are peeled back, the stakes of the present are pressing. There is contention over his estate, the beach town that served as a refuge for middle-class Black families for decades.
(image: Martino Fine Books, Ballantine Books, and Vintage.)
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