9 Great Novels That Will Help You Understand Women Better

Insightful prose from some of the best writers in history

A greater understanding between the sexes can only be a good thing, and nothing helps you empathise with others like a good novel.

Whether it is understanding the unique societal pressures faced by women, the fraught relationships that can occur between sisters, daughters and mothers or what sex is like from the other side, there is wisdom to be gleaned - not to mention pleasure to be had - from cracking open a book.

From literary classics to modern masterpieces, here are some of the best.

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1 Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

If you've seen the Friends episode where Joey reads Little Women, you'll be aware of it's emotional power on even the most macho of men. Primarily about the bonds between sisters, Alcott's novel also explores how constraining and dull domestic life was at the time. The four March sisters each go through altering experiences from travelling to illness, learning to see themselves as more than just 'little women'.

2 Bridget Jones Diary - Helen Fielding

Thanks to her reputation as the ultimate spinster icon, Bridget Jones has been widely avoided by men. What Helen Fielding actually probes in her uproariously funny book are all of the issues most women worry about. At 32, Jones smokes and drinks too much, wants to lose weight and - most disappointingly to her mother - is single. Read this to understand those pressures - and to laugh out loud more than once.

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3 How To Build A Girl - Caitlin Moran

This novelisation of Caitlin Moran's own coming of age story follows teenage Johanna Morrigan as she navigates sex, the working world and heartbreak. As well as writing particularly amusingly about various bands (and – naturally – masturbation) Moran also shows how problematic growing up can be, particularly if you create a totally false alias of yourself.

4 Carol - Patricia Highsmith

Adapted into a film this year by Todd Haynes to widespread critical approval, Carol follows a lesbian affair between shop worker Therese and the rich, frustrated mother of the title. Subtle and beautifully written, it's an insight into forbidden yearning and a thankfully diminishing time of intolerance towards homosexuality and female sexuality in general.

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5 On Beauty - Zadie Smith

A master at writing about all the complicated parts of people and relationships, Zadie Smith does exactly this in her 2005 book, On Beauty. As the title suggests, it is partially concerned with the importance placed on appearance for women, but more than that it is a funny and wise account of the relationships between the sexes as two waring families become interlinked in surprising and devastating ways.

6 The Group - Mary McCarthy

Please don't let what appears to be a brigade of WI members on the cover put you off. Publishing in 1963, The Group was a landmark (and highly controversial) novel about the lives of women post-college with unabashed descriptions of everything from breast-feeding to one night stands. It has been cited as inspiration for Sex and The City and is particularly interesting in it's depiction of the women's relationships with the men in their lives – fathers, husbands, bosses and lovers.

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7 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

Jane Austen is often overlooked beyond female book clubs and GCSE English. And while there is a lot of tea and sitting down and talking and not a great deal of action, Pride and Prejudice is one of the most important insights we have into how, in the early 19th century, women's futures rested so precariously in the hands of men and how depressingly little control they actually had.

8 Wild - Sheryl Strayed

Solitude, self-discovery and the power of travelling are the theme explored in Wild, where the author describes her own journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in America. The suffering is visceral; from her grief over losing her mother to the ground literally wearing down her feet. A monument to recovery and female strength, as Strayed writes towards the end: "I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in the world now."

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9 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel is set in future where women are divided into six 'legitimate' categories in society and two 'illegitimate' categories that live outside society. With wives at the top of the food chain and jezebels the bottom, The Handmaid's Tale shows how how much women can be defined by their relationship to men.