"Great" books, as defined by the Western canon, didn't contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all. Of the 100 Best Novels compiled by Modern Library, only nine have women in the leading role, and in only one of those books--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark--do the leading women strive to do more than find a husband or raise their children. Statistically, one percent of the Best Novels are about women doing something other than loving.
To be clear, I love a beautifully told love story. I cry during The Notebook and love Mr. Darcy. I'd just as soon advocate for the banning of metaphors as I would for the banning of stories about love (which is to say never). Love stories are needed because they mirror real life. Men and women alike search for and find partners--be they for a moment or a lifetime. Love stories are huge plot lines in real life, but they aren't everything.
These days, most women develop personal lives before love lives. They struggle, make decisions, and grow up long before they worry about finding a life partner. Women are getting married later with the average marrying age at 27 according to the most recent Pew Report. That's four years older than in 1990. Additionally, women's roles in the workforce have changed radically in the last 50 years. Though incomes between men and women still remain unequal, more women are joining and staying in the workforce, even after they have kids. Their literary counterparts, however, don't reflect that.
Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is different. Housekeeping was the first book I ever read about women that didn't feature a love line. There is no love interest, no sex, and no important man in Housekeeping. It is a book solely about growing up, because that in itself is a story.
Housekeeping follows the lives of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are moved to the beautifully desolate Fingerbone, Idaho to live with family members after their mother's death. Their guardianship changes several times before finally ending with their Aunt Sylvie, an eccentric woman who lives a transient lifestyle and eventually drives the girls apart.
Ruth grows up in the book. As the narrator, she describes her own frustrations and confusions. Robinson's book is full of Ruth's anguish and loneliness: the suffering of transitory adulthood. At times the novel is as barren and icy as the frozen lake it is set around. The characters often ignore each other and sometimes themselves. As Ruth and Lucille are forced to cope with the death of their relatives, they must learn to live their own lives. Ultimately, Housekeeping isn't an easy book to read, and it doesn't wrap up neatly. Life doesn't wrap up neatly.
There is no love plotline in Housekeeping, because not every story needs one. No one expects Holden Caulfield to find love at the end of his self-explorative adventure, and we shouldn't expect every female character to either. Coming of age novels are supposed to be about finding yourself, not finding someone else. Ruth doesn't think about boys or talk about them; she grapples with loneliness and longing and losing her family, her dreams, and her sister.