Reaction to 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner & Thoughts on the Longlist

Hello readers,

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has just been announced!

An American Marriage is a really good book, an easy read and the first third of the book was so amazing – to add to that, the topics An American Marriage deals with are really relevant: racism, the judicial system, loyalty, family and marriage, which I think are the reasons why it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. It’s a good book for creating discussion, for sure. But it’s not, in my opinion, the greatest book written by a woman in 2018, the most innovative and unique, the most creative. Tayari Jones is an amazing writer, there is no doubt about that. But the Women’s Prize for Fiction is about more than just a good book people will like – it’s about giving a voice to a group of writers who used to be (and still are) constantly silenced and dismissed as “serious” authors. I don’t mind if the main character is unlikable and if the book is not one I loved and will die for – but it needs to have something more, a challenge perhaps on the way it’s written, on the way the main character is, on the plot, anything really. The themes are important and definitely need to be talked about and represented more in fiction, but that does not change the fact that An American Marriage is a conventional contemporary, even if a very good one, and does not bring anything new. So it’s disappointing.

I would have been happy with most of the books that never made it to the shortlist winning the prize, but I’m not surprised by this result at all. The entire prize has been, so far, giving off a vibe of trying to please the crowd instead of challenging it. An American Marriage is the safest book of the entire longlist. It would have been a truly satisfying ending to see The Pisces or Ghost Wall win, they both felt like they had that extra oomph that a lot of the other books don’t.

As for the longlist, there were a lot of interesting choices, a couple odd ones, but altogether the list seemed… strange. Rachel does a great job of explaining how the whole selection looked like it had been chosen with a sort of “checklist” in her post Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist Reflections. A lot of those thoughts I share and she explains it very eloquently, so I will not repeat things here – go read her post, it’s amazing!

I would like to add that it’s really disappointing that, for a prize that celebrates books by women, most of these books were about women’s relationships with men. I understand that the topic offers lots of depth and is certainly interesting to read about, and some of the books below make a brilliant job with it. But I wish we could have seen more unique stories that aren’t about relationships – I think My Sister, The Serial Killer was a great choice, for example, because it does relationships but turns it all upside down and is ultimately about putting family first. The Pisces does a similar thing by being about putting yourself and those who truly love you first. But did we need… so many?

So that was also very disappointing, and I hope to see something different for next year. More unique reads, more challenging things, more books that are more than a solid contemporary.

Here are my thoughts on each of the books from the longlist, briefly:

Blog Divider

My Sister, the Serial Killer oyinkan braithwaite circe madeline miller number one chinese restaurant lillian li

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite ★★★★☆

I was surprised to see this book on the list, since it didn’t strike me as the usual literary fiction we see making the list, but once I thought about it, it was an interesting choice! This little book is dark and unique, and I’m glad more people have been reading it!

Circe, by Madeline Miller ★★★★★

This was a gorgeous read and I loved it so much. This retelling of Circe felt timeless and I was very enchanted by it. I was so happy when it was nominated, although surprised to see a fantasy book on the list.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li ★★★★☆

This was the wild card – a book rated 3.1 and every time more reviews showed up, the rating got lower and lower. I liked this book very much, which is a rather unpopular opinion. It wasn’t a brilliant book, and I’m not sure I was convinced by it making the longlist, but I really liked the story about immigration, relationships and food.

an american marriage tayari jones ordinary people diana evans swan song kelleigh greenberg-jephcott

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones ★★★★☆

This story of an innocent man who is sent to prison unjustly, and what it does to his marriage. The first third was so beautiful and I was emotionally devastated so many times. But after this first third, it turns into a rather regular, even though really good, contemporary book, not entirely different from many others.

Ordinary People, by Diana Evans ★★★☆☆

I ended up enjoying Ordinary People – the writing was witty and pretty, although unnecessarily verbose. This falls also in the category of a solid contemporary that I’m not sure I understand why it made the longlist and certainly not the shortlist.

Swan Song, by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott ★★★☆☆

This book had such an amazing promise with a story about the women Truman Capote wrote about in his infamous chapters to Esquire magazine, but I did not love it. The pacing was so slow and I could not care for most of the characters, plus with all the calling Truman names, I was not down for it. I like the idea of this book more than its execution.

praise song for the butterflies bernice l mcfadden milkman anna burns the pisces melissa broder

Praise Song for the Butterflies, by Bernice L. McFadden ★★★☆☆

I really appreciate the story the author told with this book, but in the end I was disappointed by the lack of character depth and development. So while it was a relevant and interesting story, it did not leave a strong impression on me. I am not sure how I feel about it having made the longlist – it’s great to see this kind of representation and I appreciate what the author tried to do, but in literary terms this book didn’t do much for me.

Milkman, by Anna Burns ★★★★☆

This was such a fantastic read, and incredibly intense. I completely see why this has been gathering so many prizes. It’s both timeless and timely, with themes on community, safety, sexism, violence. It’s not a book to pick up to pass the time, you need to be actually invested in it, but it’s really worth it. Absolutely deserved to be shortlisted.

The Pisces, by Melissa Broder ★★★★☆

An unexpectedly wonderful read! This book deals with depression and addiction to romance in such a humane way that it broke my heart, made me laugh, cringe and swear. A challenging, but so addictive read. Really a gem.

bottled goods sophie van llewyn normal people sally rooney the silence of the girls pat barker

Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Lewyr ★★★☆☆

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. I started it thinking it would be rather unremarkable, as it’s one of the least talked-about books of this list. But this little gem packs a punch of magical realism, history, whimsy and violence. I need to re-read this book and will perhaps change my rating. I was actually sad I didn’t make the shortlist!

Normal People, by Sally Rooney ★★★★☆

This was EXCELLENT. A simple but elegantly written book about the relationship between two people who never seem to be able to let go of each other. I literally got chills from reading this and had to take a break sometimes because it’s just such an emotional impact. Brilliant book.

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker ★★★☆☆

I didn’t really love this one as I thought I would. It had everything to be a favorite, being a feminist retelling of a Greek myth, but I didn’t care much for the characters or the plot, and the writing seemed a bit off to me. Maybe I expected more adventure out of it. Still, it was an interesting read and I’m glad I picked it up!

lost children archive valeria luiselli remembered yvonne battle-felton  freshwater akwaeke emezi

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli  ★★★★☆

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. Like some others in this list, it also touches on the topic of relationships and family, but it’s mostly about being a refugee, about history and the importance of documenting. It’s not an easy read but it’s really rewarding!

Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton  ★★★★☆

This historical fiction is the story of three generations of the Freeman family, and the terrible, lasting consequences of slavery. This was very illuminating in the sense that it does NOT let you forget how not that far away slavery is from the present and how its scars go much deeper than many people like to think. It was a powerful but also beautifully written story that I really appreciated. Plus ghosts are always a great thing to read about!

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi   ★★★★☆

This was such a dark, gritty, delicious fantasy story of a girl called Ada whose body is inhabited by gods, children of the snake god Ala. I loved it very much – it’s such an addictive read and felt like “How did this story not exist before?”. I wish it had made it to the shortlist!

ghost wall sarah moss

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss   ★★★★★

This was another book I just could not put down. I seriously think this is the best book in this list and it’s a shame it did not make the shortlist. It’s gorgeously written, and emotionally raw. I read it in one sitting and could not stop thinking about it.


26 thoughts on “Reaction to 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner & Thoughts on the Longlist

  1. This is an excellent wrap up! I obviously agree with you on the winner not being the most exciting. I am glad for Tayari Jones but the book is just so very conventional.
    Also, I am super impressed how you managed to give such short, concise but telling mini-reviews for every single book here!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Hannah! I put a mini-review the moment I finished each book, otherwise I’d definitely not be able to write this entire post one day before posting. But it was lots of fun to remember my experience with each of the books!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I could not agree more with your assessment of this year’s selection as a whole. It’s just far too safe and samey, when they had a chance to showcase some truly innovative fiction. Also, I hadn’t thought about just how many of the books focussed on women in relation to men, but you’re spot on there as well. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Callum! I wonder if the other years also had experiences like this, where there were so many amazing books and then the winner was – meh? Makes me a teeeeeeny tiny tempted to read the previous longlists… but you know, life and all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful assessment of an altogether frustrating experience! I mean, it’s still been a lot of fun. I just hate that it had to end like this when there were so many exciting books to start out with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely lots of fun! Ranting is 90% of the fun tbh. It almost makes me wonder about all the other wonderful reads I might have missed out on because they didn’t win this prize (and others)! I gotta look into the Pulitzer too…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Okay, I’ve really got to read Ghost Wall. I meant to read all of them but I got derailed!! Is it cheating if I only read the ones you guys say are good? 😉 Also, I agree about The Silence of the Girls. I liked it, but I didn’t connect with it entirely? I found the second half a bit dry. But you’re right about it definitely being worth a read!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes do do 😀 😀 I hope you love it!! And I hereby declare that it’s absolutely not cheating just to read the good ones from the list! Hahaha

      I had a really hard time connecting with Silence! I suppose, like Rachel said, that if you’re into the Iliad, then Silence is brilliant, but for me it was just – meh?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol perfect!! I’ve been searching for Ghost Wall every time I pass through a bookstore but can’t find it for some reason….I think I’m going to have to order it online soon.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I have not seen Ghost Wall in any bookstores! But I live in Germany, so their English section is very mainstream, which makes it difficult to find literary fiction very often anyway. It’s a tragedy that more people didn’t get to know about this book because it never made it to the shortlist. I am curious to see what you think!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great conclusion for this year’s women’s prize! I completely agree that An American Marriage is a good book with worthy messages, but that it doesn’t feel like the best choice for this award- not from the shortlist and certainly not from the longlist. An American Marriage has been such a popular favorite that I feel I shouldn’t be shocked to see it win, but I would hate for this prize to turn into a way of acknowledging already-popular commercial favorites over shining some light on lesser-known innovative gems. You’ve laid this out in such a thoughtful way, and I enjoyed your recap of your longlist experience! I hope next year’s prize will turn out to be a bit more inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Emily! I do hope so too – I don’t mind generally not having my absolute favorite win, but I did want to see something innovative. I hope next year is different and, as you said, more inspiring. I’m starting now to look at this year’s literary fictions with fresh eyes – no idea who will make it. Probably a bunch of books I never heard about tbh… I’m so late with all the releases.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I’m TERRIBLE at predicting what’ll be on the longlist! And I feel like I haven’t been reading enough new releases either, but there’s plenty of time to catch up a bit before next year’s prize. (I say now, knowing how good intentions tend to turn out…)
        It can be nice to find some new and unexpected titles on the prize list though, the surprise gems are one of the best parts of following along!

        Liked by 1 person

        • There’s never enough time to catch up with new releases, I think! I’ll be perpetually late. It’s particularly stressful when you read across many genres, because then there’s infinite releases. What do you normally read?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree! I also read a bit of everything, which does make it hard to keep up with new releases. And old releases. 😆 I think literary fiction is the genre I’ve been reading most lately, but I’m not sure that I could even name a favorite. I like almost every book I pick up to be from a different genre than the one I just finished because the variety keeps me from getting into a slump. Do you have a favorite genre?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, me too! I am picking up now my second fantasy book in a row and I’m giving longing glances at all the thrillers I would like to read. Such a disloyal reader LOL but I like variety, otherwise I end up disliking perfectly fine books just because I get saturated from the genre. But I doubt I could name a favorite genre – I think literary fiction lands itself nicely to having enough variety for me to be able to read several in a row (Like for the Women’s Prize), but I also love most of the other genres. I just feel that for some I have more “tolerance” than others, so reading more than 1 or 2 YA fantasy books will saturate me, but 4-5 literary books in a row won’t.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I completely agree, especially in that I enjoy most genres but do have more of a tolerance for some than others. That’s a great way of phrasing it! Literary fiction does seem to have a wider reach within its genre, so I would say the same about being able to read more of those in a row than some others. Even so, by the end of the Women’s Prize list, I was definitely feeling some genre fatigue. I would probably say I have the shortest amount of tolerance for historical fiction at the moment, and especially war historical fiction, but that hasn’t always been true for me. With such varied taste, it’s interesting to see what long-term trends emerge over time!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Historical fiction is probably among my lowest tolerances, too… and it’s nice to see that more people read through varied genres, I am always impressed and surprised by people who seem to read almost exclusively one genre (a lot of times YA fantasy, which is such a popular genre for repeating tropes??). I just couldn’t read one genre all the time….

            Liked by 1 person

          • I agree. I definitely feel a sense of stagnation when I try to stick to any particular category, but there’s certainly something to be admired in the patience of readers who choose to read deeply instead of widely. I don’t entirely understand how someone who sort of “specializes” in a genre finds enough variety to keep things interesting, but I imagine that would be a great way to pick up on nuances within tropes that more casual readers might miss. No two reading experiences seem to be the same, in any case, which makes discussing them so enjoyable!


  6. Amazing, insightful post, Naty! Some of my friends read An American Marriage and they all said it was just an Okay read, very conservative and all of them questioned the heroine’s behaviors. I haven’t read that yet, but I will! Your post made me re-read Freshwater once again. “Gritty” is the perfect word to describe it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Noriko!! I guess questioning the characters’ behaviors is pretty trendy now in fiction – so I was totally ok with that, but as you say, it felt very regular a read! I’m so glad you liked Freshwater!! I want to re-read it too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is such an insightful post! I must admit I wasn’t invested in this prize in previous years but this year I read a few of the shortlisted books and was really keen to find out the winner. I share a lot of your thoughts and frustrations. Personally, I would have loved to see Circe win because that book is just so different and it would be great to see a Fantasy book win. Hopefully next year we’ll see some more diversity!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have read very few of the books from longlists of previous years! We’re actually planning on reading at least the winners to get an idea of how the lists have changed through the years, I think it’d be pretty interesting to see! I loved Circe so muchhhh – she did win with Song of Achilles, though!


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