BOOK REVIEW: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis


There’s no plot, as such, with this one. It’s more Samantha Ellis‘ quest to determine which of her childhood literary heroines live up to their status when re-read years later. She talks us through some of her favourites and, with a retrospective view, dissects problematic aspects of the women we hail as heroines. After all, the heroines we idolise as children don’t often stay with us to adulthood because we outgrow them. Ellis discusses the influence of the authors and their tribulations upon their fictional characters, as well as relevant cultural discourse at the time of publication.

Things I like about the novel:

  • Writing style: succinct, comedic, poetic at times. It slightly felt like reading somebody’s PHD thesis, though it was accessible and never ‘lost’ me, despite my lack of familiarity with some of the texts. Overall, reading this book felt like being at a cafe with a cappuccino in-hand and sitting across from a fellow bookworm, losing hours of time over a good gab on our favourites.
  • Little snippets of Ellis’ cultural background sneak into the book. There’s stories of growing up in a Iraqi-Jewish household with conservative cultural beliefs and expectations. In between the discussion of literature, I really enjoyed Ellis’ account of how the books impacted her life decisions and perspectives, particularly her earlier relationships. I definitely relate to the romantic notion of seeking out fictional ideas of fictional men when it comes to relationships. I could blame authors for distorting my worldview of men, but at the end of the day, we all need a bit of escapism. Sometimes it’s it’s nice to fantasise about those mysteriously enigmatic and brooding men who swoop in at all the right times and say all the right things. However, I’ve learned that, in reality, chasing archetypes of the Byronic bad-boy and sensitive romantic aren’t worth it. Real people are so much messier and problematic than fictional figures. Part of me really likes that, actually.
  • Admittedly, I haven’t read all the titles featured, so some sections were a little lost on me in that I lost the impact I would inevitably have felt if I was more acquainted with the characters and narrative arcs. That being said, Ellis does a brilliant job of summarising the key elements of the novels so that you don’t feel completely in the dark. Also, her passion for literature absolutely shines from the outset till the end.

This book is a lovely ode to heroic wordsmiths who have provided the world with the light of these iconic protagonists. It says a lot that these heroines have lived on for hundreds of years, in some cases, through faithful readers and word-of-mouth. Ellis’ book is a firm reminder that we still turn to our creature comforts despite our busy lifestyles, re-reading classics like Wuthering Heights on the bus to work or tuning in for the latest remake of Emma. This is because, despite our differences, there are admirable and strong traits to be noted in these iconic literary heroines and they continue to inspire us to this day.

Goodreads rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️