Review: How To Be A Heroine: Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis

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Samantha Ellis' novel is enchantingly written, and will leave readers with a comforting sense of nostalgia for the literary heroines they have read.

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The beautifully voiced How To Be A Heroine gives readers just as much insight into its author’s life as it does the heroines she writes about. Samantha Ellis seamlessly weaves her personal life around the framework of literary heroines that came to shape her aspirations, whilst providing something of an encyclopaedia of great literary women and their characters. Readers are taken on a journey from The Little Mermaid through Anne of Green GablesThe Bell Jar, Valley of the Dolls to, finally, a narrative from One Thousand and One Nights- so anyone that has read a bit (or a lot) is likely to find someone they recognise in Ellis’ line-up.

The reader’s journey with Samantha Ellis begins with her at age four, lost on a beach in Italy and dreaming of living a storybook life. As Ellis grows up she can’t help but feel she is doomed to lead a boring, sheltered life – a far cry from her admiration of her mother’s tumultuously exciting life that led to her escape to London from Baghdad, and all by the age of 22. With her parents wanting her to marry successfully, and preferably within their religion, rather than launching into her own aspirations it is no wonder that Ellis seeks refuge in literary heroines before going on to read English at Cambridge à la Sylvia Plath.

Readers first find themselves face to face with the heroines we most likely recognise from the sugar-coated Disney films we grew up with – namely focusing on The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty. Ellis’ colloquial and often very casual tone guides her readers through a sea of characters, refreshingly choosing not to simply focus on the heroines of the literary canon, those of Austen, Forster and the Brontës, but surprisingly draws attention to the female characters of ‘romp’ novels Riders and Plath’s Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar.

She leaves no literary corner untouched in her search for heroines. Ellis’ colloquial and anecdotal style creates a personal journey and she often reflects on her shifts in attitudes towards certain heroines as her situations change- an example being her guilt over initially misreading of Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A View. This leads to her idea that “maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time,” leaving a reading of a novel to say more about the reader’s situation than the text itself.  

Ellis does not confine herself to heroines in the novels she has read, but presents a wealth of knowledge about the biographies of their authors – an example being the romanticised life of Sylvia Plath and her eventual suicide – as well as delving into feminist theory such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. She confronts the idea of Postfeminism, and battles against the inevitability of heroines lives ending in either love or death, marking her novel as an invigoratingly feminist text.

The novel’s conclusion wonderfully brings all of Ellis’ heroines together in an imagined party, likened to that of a riotous Holly Golightly bash in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which acts a wonderful summation to the text and breathes new life into the characters. It prompts one to wonder who would be at a party of heroines were your own literary past brought to life. Would it be like Ellis’, with The Little Mermaid soaking in the bath, and the Brontë sisters’ heroines Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre bonding over a hawk, and J.D. Salinger’s sibling duo Franny and Zooey dancing in the living room? Probably not – however great it may sound. We would all have a different line-up, but it is a lovely concept with which to end Ellis’ biblio-autobiography. The importance of heroines in How To Be A Heroine is universal, and Ellis’ final message of writing your own life somehow manages to escape being cliché and is incredibly inspiring.

And just in case Ellis ‘can’t exactly tell you how to be a heroine,’ she leaves her readers with her mother’s recipe for Iraqi Jewish marzipan, masafan. 

How To Be A Heroine will leave readers wanting to dust off their old copies of Ballet Shoes and Wuthering Heights, and nostalgically reminisce about the heroines they grew up with. In writing about great and strong literary heroines, Samantha Ellis becomes the ultimate heroine of her novel, and reassures readers that we don’t have to give up our beloved literary heroines in order to become heroines in our own lives. Beautifully written, this novel will be a delight to anyone who reads it.

How To Be A Heroine is published by Chatto & Windus. 

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Third year English student, Records Editor, list maker and lover of Kinder Buenos.

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