The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Societal expectations? Please. For the female protagonists in these 3 debut novels, it’s time to break the mold.

(Grand Central Publications; Harper)

Being a woman involves a nearly impossible balancing act, at every stage of life.

They’re told: Be confident — but not too confident. Excel in a respectable, lucrative vocation — but don’t neglect the kids. Embrace your inner sex goddess and look beautiful — but not too skinny, too chunky or too slutty. Make your voice heard — but never disrupt.

When does it end?

More importantly, where does all that striving, fretting, pleasing, pushing get them?

In three provocative debut novels out this September, writers from different parts of the world weigh in on these questions by examining what it means to be a woman with agency.

10 books to read in September

'Assembly,' by Natasha Brown

British writer Natasha Brown’s first foray into fiction barely registers as a novel, at least in terms of size. But what it lacks in length — a slim 112 pages — it makes up for in strength. A scathing takedown of the British class system and the country’s views on race, immigration and gender politics, “Assembly” packs a wallop.

The unnamed heroine is an Oxbridge-educated, Black 30-something who seems to have it all: A recent promotion at a White male-dominated, blue-chip bank and a sizable chunk of change to go with it; a swank apartment with appropriately posh wall art; a beau from a well-heeled family who is ready to propose.

Yet despite all the accolades and accoutrements of her “sliver of middle-class comfort,” our girl is unhappy. In fact, she’s so exhausted by life and its whack-a-mole stressors and unfulfilling successes that instead of taking action after a breast cancer diagnosis, she opts to let the disease run its course.

Though impactful, the skeleton story line of “Assembly” isn’t what makes the book so unshakable. It’s the way Brown expertly captures the narrator’s mental state through an internal dialogue that’s alternately plagued and disgusted by how others perceive her.

Her lecherous boss, for example, calls her hair “wild” and her skin “exotic,” while a puffy-cheeked White colleague attributes her promotion (and lack of his) to affirmative action. “He says he’s not opposed to diversity. He just wants fairness, okay?” Brown writes.

Fall reading list: 15 books to read next

In a scene reminiscent of “Get Out,” a garden party at her White boyfriend’s parents’ lavish estate speaks volumes about the “frowning liberals” there who disparage her “immoral career” for being “counterproductive to [her] community.”

“Assembly” is a searing account of a woman trying to “be invisible, imperceptible,” even in the face of what most would consider triumph. In truth, her thoughts — and actions — do just the opposite. They signify a rousing, inspired voice demanding to be recognized and heard.

'Fault Lines,' by Emily Itami

For mothers the world over, feeling fed up with the day-to-day routine of parenting is nothing new. There are the sleepless nights. The endless lunch-making and picking up of toys. And who can forget the bottomless heap of dirty diapers?

Glamorous it is not, and for Mizuki — the spirited yet conflicted Japanese protagonist of Emily Itami’s “Fault Lines” — being “submerged in motherhood” is the antithesis of everything she thought her life would be. From a sultry lounge singer in New York City in her early years to the bedraggled housewife of an emotionally and physically absent workaholic, it’s a wonder she hasn’t thrown herself off her Tokyo apartment’s balcony.

But this isn’t “Convenience Store Woman” in mommy lit form. Mizuki does find an answer to her problems, albeit a temporary one. After she strikes up a friendship-cum-romance with Kiyoshi, a hunky restaurateur she meets at a coffee shop, she sees her humdrum existence in a new light. In showing him what remained of her father’s sweet shop in her rural hometown or stepping in as Kiyoshi’s confident and sexy quasi-date at a business dinner, for example, Mizuki realizes not only how to appreciate what she had and where she came from, but also to consider who she is and could become.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

While some readers might be drawn in by the novel’s potential for blush-worthy bedroom scenes, the few that exist happen off page. Instead, what’s intriguing about “Fault Lines” is its shrewd commentary on Japan’s societal expectations of women as either sex objects or dutiful mothers.

As Mizuki eventually learns, it’s in striking a workable balance between these two dichotomies — her past life vs. her present one, titillating desire vs. familial obligations, who she wants to be vs. who society dictates she should be — that the real work of living begins.

'Snowflake,' by Louise Nealon

While “Assembly” and “Fault Lines” are each heady and intoxicating in their own right, Irish writer Louise Nealon’s “Snowflake” is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the three because of its protagonist’s naivete and the choices she makes to take control of her life.

Eighteen-year-old Debbie, hails “from the back-arse of nowhere,” a rural dairy farm 40 minutes outside of Dublin. For most of her adolescence, she tried unsuccessfully to manage her single mother’s drastic mood swings and wonky dream prophecies, her cantankerous yet caring uncle’s drunkenness, and her own mounting anxieties about growing up.

Sally Rooney’s latest novel is a lucid, nuanced story about coming of age in a broken world

An escape for most kids her age, a place at Trinity College only teaches her “how to hide.” But when she befriends Xanthe, a privileged and glamorous classmate who is equally entranced by Debbie’s back-to-the-land upbringing, the friendship shows both girls not only different versions of what it means to be young and supposedly carefree, but also who to turn to for help.

This kind of coming-of-age setup recalls many a campus novel. Debbie has a lot of blackout make-out sessions, and Xanthe struggles with self-loathing despite her beauty and smarts, for example.

But it’s Nealon’s razor-sharp focus on the shame surrounding mental health issues, sexual promiscuity and substance abuse in Irish culture — and her female characters’ determination to not only face but conquer their shortcomings — that makes an indelible mark.

For Debbie, overcoming her burdened background and wounded self-image is by no means easy. Still, it’s this journey precisely that inspires her to grow and thrive.

Alexis Burling is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune, among other publications.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.