Shortly after Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau was published in the spring, the New York Times book critic Janet Maslin dismissed the novel on the basis of the main female character being an “insufferable American narcissist.” The story, a modern Anna Karenina-Madame Bovary hybrid set in a suburb of Zürich, features a compulsively unfaithful housewife named Anna. While Maslin wasn’t a fan of Essbaum’s writing (which she compared to “a sink full of dishwater”), her criticism lingered on Anna’s unsavory traits. “This may be hard to believe, but Anna becomes even more myopic and selfish in the book’s later stages,” Maslin wrote. “[Anna’s husband] becomes more interesting, she grows less so, and still she snivels at center stage, whining about her bad luck and mistreatment.”
Yet in 2015 the publishing industry saw a bevy of novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff. The narrator of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is a newly divorced woman who’s irrationally jealous of a stranger. The novel became a number one New York Times bestseller within a month of its release and its movie rights were quickly snapped up. Another instant bestseller, Jessica Knoll’s debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive, centers around Ani FaNelli, an unapologetic social climber. After Birth, the raw and celebrated account of motherhood by Elisa Albert, is driven by the new mom Ari, who’s conflicted about her role as a parent. And Fates and Furies, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, ultimately reveals that the seemingly selfless Mathilde has long been raging behind the scenes of her own multi-decade marriage. Meanwhile, Hausfrau, insufferable narcissist and all, was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month in March.