4 Books with Headstrong Female Characters to Pair with Emma by Jane Austen

One of the things I adore about Jane Austen’s Emma is the variety of complex female characters in the novel. Obviously, there’s quite a variety of personalities among the women in this story. To name just a few, we have Emma herself, who is outgoing and headstrong; we have Harriet, who is meek and uncertain; we have Jane, who is reserved and well-mannered; and we have Isabella, who is affectionate and family-oriented. It’s particularly interesting to consider these personalities against the backdrop of the Regency era, where societal expectations were quite strict for women. Whenever there’s a novel with women and strict societal standards, there always seems to be the trope of the women who conform versus the women who rebel.

Chelsey and Sara’s Emma pairings included books with romantic heroines, strong female friendships, and women who buck tradition. I’m thrilled to be offering you four additional pairings for Jane Austen’s Emma each with a complex but lovable heroine of its own.

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith. This take on Emma sticks very close to the original story but makes the context accessible for today’s readers–all of the characters are the same but their lives have been updated. In Austen’s novel, Emma is a young lady from a wealthy, mid-19th century family who enjoys finding her friends significant others while she herself plans to remain single. In Smith’s book, Emma is a modern woman who has just graduated from college and is on the prowl for matchmaking jobs. To me, this is the type of novel a modern Jane Austen would write because her works are largely based on her observation and critique of 19th-century courtship and society. Smith follows this exact style, only he’s looking at the 21st century. 

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. I suppose this book could technically be a pairing for any Jane Austen novel, but it feels like Emma is mentioned a little more often than Austen’s other novels. Jenner offers just the right amount of Austen background while also weaving her own story about a group of people who come together in the name of preserving Austen’s legacy. I really enjoyed the female characters in this one. Like Emma, the story incorporates women with varying perspectives and age ranges, from a Hollywood starlet to a young girl to an older “spinster” and more.

Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce. In England during WWII, Emmy Lake is doing what she can to support the war effort, but her real dream is to become a lady war correspondent. She takes a job writing for the local newspaper, thinking this will get her one step closer to her goal. But the job turns out to be a surprise—she ends up writing for a women’s advice column where she can only respond to the most benign of inquiries. Frustrated, Emmy decides to secretly reply to the letters that are too uncouth for the magazine, but she has to make sure that her boss, Mrs. Bird, doesn’t find her out. Emmy reminds me a lot of Emma because she is independent, determined, and does what she believes is best, even if it means breaking the rules. While Emmy does have a love interest, he is not central to the plot and she gets along just fine without a man. Her best friend is equally strong (unlike Harriet) and their friendship makes this book even more special.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. Set in New York City on December 31, 1984, the plot follows the elderly Lillian Boxfish as she reflects on her life and career as the highest-paid woman in American advertising of the 1930’s. As Lillian enjoys her leisurely New Year’s Eve stroll, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, and a variety of other people. She both learns from and imparts wisdom on those she meets all while reviewing the major historical movements she has experienced in her lifetime. Lillian and Emma Woodhouse have a lot in common–they are both brave, intelligent, opinionated, and ahead of their time. They don’t let anyone tell them to change who they are. (TW: suicide)   

And we can’t forget about a bonus pick of the week…

  • Clueless (1995, Directed by Amy Heckerling). This movie is another modern retelling of Emma. Cher and her best friend Dion rule their high school but decide to give the unpopular, fashion-challenged, new girl a makeover when she transfers to their school. Cher is so busy with this project that it takes her a while to remember she has needs, too.

Readers, who are your favorite headstrong literary heroines? Leave a comment below!

24. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien and fantasy novels for readers who love strong characters and complex worlds

Today Chelsey and Sara are discussing The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. We’re not shy about sharing our lack of experience with the fantasy genre. It’s not the go-to genre for either of us, but we love to branch out and try new literary things. This book delighted us in some surprising ways and helped us figure out what exactly we love—or could do without—in fantasy novels. 

Our discussion includes:

  • What surprised Sara about reading this book, what she loved and what she didn’t [14:03]
  • Fantasy elements we love and gravitate towards [20:45]
  • Gender roles and stereotypes in LOTR and high fantasy in general [24:54]
  • A few favorite moments that warmed our hearts and pleased our literary minds [30:00]
  • Connecting to LOTR in the middle of a global pandemic [35:28]

Plus, as always, we’re recommending six contemporary books to pair with our classic,  including a fast-paced fantasy set in NYC and a beautiful book for map-lovers.

We avoided major spoilers in this episode, so feel free to listen before or after reading in order to enhance your reading experience.

Books Mentioned:

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Shop the pairings:  https://bookshop.org/lists/novel-pairings-for-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-by-j-r-r-tolkien

Chelsey’s Pairings:

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin [40:57]

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan [51:11]

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss [59:18]

Sara’s Pairings:

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike [45:40]

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James [54:00]

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Maguel, Gianni Guadalupi, and Graham Greenfield [1:01:48]

Picks of the Week:

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. MaasA Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin

23. On Campus with Novel Pairings, a preview of our back to school fall season and books that feel like Autumn

Today Chelsey and Sara are sharing the lineup for Novel Pairings’ fall season. We share our plans for an extra nerdy back-to-school-inspired season and which books we selected to feature. The books include a book seemingly everyone read in high school, a spooky listener’s choice, and a classic mystery novel. All of the books were chosen to fit with different fall reading moods and learning opportunities in mind.
To shop all of the books in the fall lineup,  and more, visit our Bookshop storefront: https://bookshop.org/shop/novelpairings

Scroll down for links to our six fall classics:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Beowulf or Frankenstein (Listeners’ Choice)

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

In the Woods by Tana French

The Likeness by Tana FrenchMexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

22. Like Water for Chocolate and mouth-watering fiction books about food, cooking, and romance

Today Chelsey and Sara are kicking off Women in Translation Month by discussing Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. This romantic, sensuous novel was so much fun to discuss, and our pairings include some of our absolute favorite books! We can’t wait to hear what you think of these pairings. 

Our discussion includes:

  • Esquivel’s stunning use of food as a conduit for emotion, passion, and tension [11:10]
  • Celebrating passion and different types of love [15:30]
  • Rooting for Tita! [19:03]
  • Structure and expanding the coming of age category [23:54]

Plus, as always, we’re recommending six contemporary books to pair with our classic,  including a novel in verse and another classic in translation.

We avoided spoilers in this episode, so feel free to listen before or after reading in order to enhance your reading experience.

Shop the pairings:  https://bookshop.org/lists/novel-pairings-for-like-water-for-chocolate

A Burning by Mehga Majumdar

Beheld by Tarashea Nesbitt

Chelsey’s Pairings:

American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera [39:00]

The Virgin and the Rogue by Sophie Jordan [45:10]

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo [52:13]

Sara’s Pairings:

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez [34:12]

Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev [42:13]

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende [48:26]

Picks of the Week:

@thedefineddish “Pass the Dish” seriesSalt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

21. Book and Wine Pairings with Jamise Harper and book recommendations from our recent reads

Today Chelsey and Sara are chatting with Jamise Harper of @spinesvines and @diversespines. Jamise is a champion for independent bookstores, for authors, and for the books she loves. We’re delighted to have her on the podcast today to share more about her Literary Wine Down interviews on Instagram live, her favorite books, and the perfect wine pairings to match summertime reads. We had so much fun gushing about our favorite books and authors with Jamise and hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.

Follow Jamise: @spinesvines and @diversespines

To shop all of the books in the summer lineup visit our Bookshop storefront or shop the individual links below: https://bookshop.org/shop/novelpairings

Support Jamise’s favorite D.C. bookstores: 

Mahogany Books

Politics and Prose

Kramer Books

Solid State Books

Loyalty Bookstore

East City Books

Purchase a #diversespines mug: https://www.idealbookshelf.com/products/mug-spines-vines-diversespines

Books mentioned:

Native Son by Richard Wright

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Sula by Toni Morrison

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Book & Wine Pairings:

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson + Cabernet

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo + Rosé

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory + Rosé

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Where to Begin by Cleo Wade + Malbec

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi + Merlot

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Recent recommendations:

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

The City We Became by N.K Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K Jemisin

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Passing by Nella LarsenDaisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

20. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and romantic Black feminist heroines

Today Chelsey and Sara are chatting about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, the perfect book to discuss on a sweltering summer day. Sara read and did not finish this classic in high school. We talk about where she stopped and why, and how we both have a greater appreciation for this work as adults. We gush about Hurston’s writing, bond over a love of Janie the dreamer, and share some tips for approaching this seminal work of southern literature. 

Our discussion includes:

  • Hurston’s use of dialect [8:08]
  • Our fondness and love for Janie Crawford [12:06]
  • Seamless symbolism: silencing, oppression, and Janie’s relationships [23:20]
  • Reading Tea Cake’s fate symbolically [20:05]

Plus, as always, we’re recommending six contemporary books to pair with our classic,  including a celebrity memoir and narrative nonfiction.

We will get into some spoilers in this episode, but we must say, we both read summaries prior to reading and think it benefited our reading to know more information going in. Having a prior awareness of plot helped us take in the dialect and rhythm of the story and allowed us to admire Hurston’s writing all the more.

Shop the pairings:  https://bookshop.org/lists/novel-pairings-for-their-eyes-were-watching-god

Chelsey’s Pairings:

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins [43:03]

Rebel by Beverly Jenkins

We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories that are Funny, Complicated, and True by Gabrielle Union [48:13]

Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall [55:30]

Jaime’s review

Sara’s Pairings:

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward [38:20]

 Jaime’s review

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson [45:30]Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde [51:07]

19. Short Story Club: All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury and descriptive dystopian novels

Today, in “Short Story Club,” Chelsey and Sara are chatting about “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Brudbury. This short story is about a group of young schoolchildren living on Venus, who have never seen the sun in their lifetime. It’s about sacrifice, the pain of nostalgia, bullying. It’s super short but packed with stunning detail and emotion. Our discussion includes:

  • Bradbury’s descriptive language [11:07]
  • That ending! We love an ambiguous ending. [15:34]
  • Themes of sustainability and climate change [18:40]

Plus, we’re recommending six contemporary books to pair with this story, including an award-winning fantasy and a dystopian YA novel.

Past short story episodes:

“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton


Fahrenheit 451 film

Fahrenheit 451

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life

The Hunger Games

The October Country by Ray Bradbury

Chelsey’s Pairings:

The Martian by Andy Weir [30:12] & Artemis by Andy Weir [30:50]

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin [33:39]

The Dry by Jane Harper [37:30]

Sara’s Pairings:

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah [31:42]

Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman [35:22]Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson [38:58]

18. The Odyssey by Homer and mythology retellings for adventurous readers

Today Chelsey and Sara are chatting about Homer’s The Odyssey. Sara reveals her nerdy middle school obsession, Chelsey has strong opinions on defining “the classics,” and we have a LOT of fun discussing the complicated character of Odysseus. You don’t need to have any knowledge of mythology or The Odyssey in order to enjoy this episode. 

Our discussion includes:

  •  What is a “mythology girl?” [11:38]
  •  Analyzing Odysseus: a larger-than-life character [18:40]
  •  More on Odysseus as a complex, flawed and nuanced hero [28:00]

Plus, as always, we’re recommending six contemporary books to pair with our classic,  including a business book and a book in translation.

This episode will be mostly spoiler-free, except for a brief discussion of the ending. We’ll warn you in advance before we get into it, and timestamps are listed below.

Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

“Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood

“ Penelope” by Carol Ann Duffy

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

Madeline Miller: Circe and The Song of Achilles

Gareth Hinds graphic novel The Odyssey

Bull by David Elliot

Chelsey’s Pairings:

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger [39:05]

The Martian by Andy Weir [44:36]

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown [51:35]

Sara’s Pairings:

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood [35:40]

The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth [41:15]

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera [47:05]

Pick of the Week:

Chelsey: A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow recommended by Bezi @beingabookwyrmSara: Rick Riordan Presents

17. Buzzy Summer Books and backlist titles to read while you wait on your library holds

Today Chelsey and Sara are  toppling your TBRs with backlist books to enjoy this summer. We know hardback books are pricey and library waitlists for the hottest new releases are long, so we’re going to be pairing some of 2020’s most exciting books of summer with older books that are easier to get your hands on.

Shop our Backlist Recs on Bookshop:  

Use our referral code to get TWO  audiobooks for the price of one through Libro.fm: https://libro.fm/redeem/novelpairings

Books mentioned:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld 

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Abigail Adams: A Life by Woody Holton

Beach Read by Emily Henry 

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

A Burning by Megha Majumdar 

There There by Tommy Orange

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

All Adults Here by Emma Straub 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett 

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory 

Dreamers series by Adrianna Herrera (American Fairytale #2)

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Friends and Strangers by J Courtney Sullivan 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan 

A Room with a View by EM Forrester

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Beloved by Toni Morrison  

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Other mentions:

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book

The Stacks Podcast

Attica and Tembi Locke

16. Passing by Nella Larsen and books about complicated sisterhood

Today Chelsey and Sara are chatting about Passing by Nella Larsen. Published in 1929, Passing is a book about two women: Clare and Irene, who grew up in the same middle class Black community in Chicago and come back into each other’s lives as adults. Irene is living in Harlem with her husband, a successful doctor, while Clare has left the family and friends of her youth behind to marry a white man and pass as white. Clare and Irene’s bond is built on a shared past and a deep mutual affection, but also curiosity and jealousy over the lives each of them might have had. As their lives become more and more intertwined the tension builds, and a sense of impending doom makes this book impossible to put down.

Our discussion includes:

  •  Gatsby connections galore, and an argument for replacing Gatsby with Passing [16:35]
  •  Intersectionality and Irene’s struggle with loyalty across race, gender, and class lines [27:56]
  •  Who should pick this up? [32:15]

Plus, as always, we’re recommending six contemporary books to pair with our classic,  including a literary thriller and one of this summer’s buzziest books.

This episode will be mostly spoiler-free, except for a brief discussion of the ending. We’ll warn you in advance before we get into it, and timestamps are listed below.

Chelsey’s Pairings:

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite [40:48]

Black is the Body by Emily Bernard [47:05]

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert [53:17]

Sara’s Pairings:

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson [37:50]

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah [43:14]

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett [50:00]

Pick of the Week:

You Must Remember This podcast “Passing for White, Merle Oberon”13th the Ava DuVerny documentary