A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again (Hardcover)
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Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2023 by the New York Times, The Week, Vulture, Elle, and The Millions
A piercing blend of memoir, criticism, and biography examining how women writers across the centuries carved out intellectual freedom for themselves—and how others might do the same
I took off my wedding ring for the last time—a gold band with half a line of “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath etched inside—and for weeks afterwards, my thumb would involuntarily reach across my palm for the warm bright circle that had gone. I didn’t fling the ring into the long grass, like women do in the movies, but a feeling began bubbling up nevertheless, from my stomach to my throat: it could fling my arms out. I was free. . . .
A few years into her marriage and feeling societal pressure to surrender to domesticity, Joanna Biggs found herself longing for a different kind of existence. Was this all there was? She divorced without knowing what would come next.
Newly untethered, Joanna returned to the free-spirited writers of her youth and was soon reading in a fever—desperately searching for evidence of lives that looked more like her own, for the messiness and freedom, for a possible blueprint for intellectual fulfillment.
In A Life of One’s Own, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, and Elena Ferrante are all taken down from their pedestals, their work and lives seen in a new light. Joanna wanted to learn more about the conditions these women needed to write their best work, and how they addressed the questions she herself was struggling with: Is domesticity a trap? Is life worth living if you have lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman? Why is it so important for women to read one another?
This is a radical and intimate examination of the unconventional paths these women took—their pursuits and achievements but also their disappointments and hardships. And in exploring the things that gave their lives the most meaning, we find fuel for our own singular intellectual paths.
Joanna Biggs is an editor at Harper’s Magazine. Previously an editor at the London Review of Books, she has written for the New Yorker, the Nation, the Financial Times, and the Guardian, among other places. In 2017 she cofounded Silver Press, a London based feminist publishing house. She lives in New York.
“In this trenchant and wide-ranging book, Biggs writes about starting over after divorce while seeking wisdom from a canon of great female authors. In Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Elena Ferrante and others, Biggs finds inspiration, advice and cautionary tales that shade her experience.” — New York Times (“19 Works of Nonfiction to Read This Spring”)
“A moving biblio-memoir that’s a gift to readers of all ages, especially those in midlife who want to stroll down the memory lane of their formative reading experiences. The book’s engaging, breezy chapters explore each subject’s life and writings in chronological order. . . . A Life of One’s Own has much to offer readers new to its subjects. . . . [Biggs] has learned a lesson from these writers she’s long looked up to, for better and for worse. The book ends with her realization that she ought to ‘let go of them and become the author of my own life.’ She encourages her readers to do the same, cheering us on with the last words, ‘You can too.’”
— Washington Post
“A Life of One’s Own is itself the writerly achievement [Biggs] had hoped for, which means that the larger story of her absorbing, eccentric book is the story of how she came to write it. . . . There is, of course, another sort of yearning here; alongside Biggs’s search for a way to be a woman apart from being a wife is her search for a way to be a writer apart from being a critic. On the evidence of A Life of One’s Own, she has found it.” — New Yorker
“To make sense of and find a shape to one’s life within the context of one’s literary predecessors is the project of Biggs’s brilliant book, which combines incisive biographies with a personal story of starting over. This book reframed my own life in the most startling and revealing ways, illuminating complicated desires and lifelong debates via the absorbing stories of nine women authors whom I now consider sisters, teachers, kin. A deeply moving meditation on reading and writing, friendship, desire, the life of the mind, and the woman writer’s perennial yearning to be free.” — Rachel Yoder, author of Nightbitch
"A meditation, by turns glorious and aching, on what it means to be a woman and to try to be free.” — Amia Srinivasan, author of The Right to Sex
“A genre-breaking exploration about starting over.” — Shondaland
"Joanna Biggs is an unmissable writer. She gives new scope and fresh meaning to the idea of literary empathy." — Andrew O'Hagan, author of Mayflies
“Joanna Biggs is one of our sharpest critics and wisest interrogators of how to live. This is a deeply moving and invigorating book.” — Francesca Wade, author of Square Haunting
“Written with profound sensitivity and a singular eye for detail, this book is engrossing, surprising, and moving reading for anyone interested in what it means to write—and to live.” — Lauren Oyler, author of Fake Accounts
"Such beautiful, meaningful writing on the pursuit of beauty and meaning. It's the book equivalent of sinking into a hot bath after a difficult day." — Emma Forrest, author of Your Voice in My Head
"A powerful collective portrait of women writers who are often only studied via their isolated exceptionalism…An enlightening meditation on the intersections of art and freedom.” — Kirkus
"I adored this book. I started turning down pages to note favorite parts, then found myself turning down almost every other page. It’s such a generous, enlivening work, destined to be passed from friend to friend for a long time to come." — Megan Hunter, author of The Harpy
"Book lovers will swoon over this smart meditation on life and writing." — Publisher's Weekly
“Acute and tender . . . alive with debate, discovery and desire.” — Observer (UK)
“A beautiful, deeply philosophical book about reading as a form of existential consolation…wonderfully inconclusive, moving and original…a brilliant exploration of uncertainty and a compelling anti-guide to art and life.” — Literary Review