Costume-Drama Novels Every Intelligent Woman Needs to Read

Forget the powerless girl mooning over the lord of the manor. These exhilarating journeys into the past feature women who rise above their historical circumstances to find freedom, love—and well-deserved glory.
Where the Light Falls by Katherine Keenum

Where the Light Falls

480 pages; Berkeley Trade
How many creative young people have gone to Paris in search of something only to realize that that something hasn't actually existed in decades? Katherine Keenum's debut novel is a literary passport to that Paris, the magic one, when the Belle Époque drew aspiring artists to bohemian parties and the teaching studios of charismatic masters. One of these seekers is young Jeanette Palmer, expelled from Vassar for abetting a friend's eloping scandal that today would cause no more than a bat of the eye. Keenum painstakingly re-creates the lavish era, when the Civil War roiled in recent memory and innovations abounded (the invention of purple!). As Jeanette begins her metamorphosis from an ambitious yet unsure novice, she learns that, as her professor had warned her, a true artist can't afford to be "impatient and dainty." Like the Edith Wharton-esque heroine she is, Jeanette finds herself drawn to a difficult man, a tortured Civil War vet addicted to both laudanum and sadness. But in the end, her observations about painting prove to double as lessons in life. "Study where the light falls and where the shadows lie," suggests her Parisian mentor Carolus-Duran—advice crucial for both painting and love, characters and the rest of us.
— Amy Shearn