When most people think of women of the 1950s they think of poodle skirts, ponytails, and mothers wearing aprons with their hair stiffly molded into the shape of fancy dinner rolls. When I think of women of the 1950s, I think of some of my favorite writers. Here’s a list of my top four. Feel free to tweet this list and add all the women you noticed I missed.
Patricia Highsmith. Otto Penzier said of Highsmith, “She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.” Everything I’ve read about her makes me believe that to be true. However, she wrote some damn fine books that have given me weeks of great pleasure. Most people are familiar with Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, from the Hitchcock movie. I, too, love the movie. But the book is just as fabulous. Read it, and then read The Price of Salt, my next favorite Highsmith book. Once you’ve finished those, it’s time to get to the Ripley series, including the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Françoise Sagan. A film was made about Sagan’s life (it’s French, and I love French films but haven’t seen it yet). Her life was certainly cinematic—she had two husbands, many lovers, and a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy Magazine editor Annick Geille. Oh, and there was also the gambling in Monaco, the coma after the car accident, and the drugs and alcohol. Her first novel (written before the drugs and alcohol, when she was only 18), Bonjour Tristesse, is a lovely, fun, quick read that will make you wish you could run to the French Riviera, rent a house, and write a character as wonderfully spirited as Sagan’s Cécile.
Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of gambling in Monaco or just being downright mean, like the two writers above, Gwendolyn Brooks spent her life writing. By age 16 she had published 75 poems. (I, on the other hand, was wearing a black crochet bikini and making out with boys on the beach at 16, flighty fool that I was!) I love reading Brooks’ work, and I love reading it aloud. Brooks’ poems are so beautifully rhythmic, you can do hand claps or jump rope to them. Start with the collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls. I promise, you’ll be a Brooks devotee after a single stanza.
Flannery O’Connor. No list of great writers—male, female, of any decade—is complete without Flannery O’Connor. There are many great books about her, her life in rural Georgia, her love of peacocks and peahens, her Catholicism and her premature death. They’re all fascinating; go read them. But first, read anything and everything she’s written. Start with the short stories if you haven’t read them already. Begin with the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. These stories contain characters that will stick with you like your extended family—people you’ll know and think about for the rest of your life.
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of three novels. The Wonder Bread Summer, her third novel, won various “beach read” contests from NPR, CNN and Oprah.com’s book club. Jessica is the author of the 2008 bestselling novel The Summer of the Naked Swim Parties, which was named a Top Summer Read by “The Today Show,” The New York Post, and New York Magazine. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars Masters program, Jessica has published more than two dozen short stories. Her second novel, Drinking Closer to Home, came out in 2011. Her honors include a “Family Matters,” Glimmer Train Finalist in 2008, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship in August of 2003, the Santa Barbara Independent Fiction Contest Winner in July 1998, and the Eclectica Featured Writer in August 1997. Jessica was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. She earned a BA in French from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.