American actress and filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal cut her teeth in the movie industry playing bit parts in her father’s films, but gained recognition after appearing alongside her brother Jake in the 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko. She rose to fame for her role in the erotic romantic dramedy Secretary the following year, and has since appeared in an eclectic range of film and TV projects, from indie favorites to Batman’s biggest blockbuster.

Long-drawn to stories of troubled women, Gyllenhaal made her directorial debut last year with the psychological drama The Lost Daughter, based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novella of the same name. An edgy tale of maternal ambivalence, the notoriously private Italian writer granted permission for the adaptation on the condition that only Gyllenhaal could direct it.

In an interview with O Magazine, Gyllenhaal shared seven of her favorite books that delve into the messy heart of the human condition. From Raymond Carver to Joan Didion, find her recommended reading list below. Complement with the bookshelves of Elena Ferrante, Emma Thompson, Julianne Moore, and Kate Winslet.


Mating by Norman Rush (also rec’d by Pearl Jam)

“For the first 50 pages, I thought it was written by a woman—it was done so convincingly in a woman’s voice. It’s about how we think about mating in terms of finding the best of our species, but what complicates that idea is the truth about human beings: They’re not perfect at all, and sometimes their imperfections are the sexiest and most appealing things to us. At the very end of the book, I think the narrator realizes that.” -MG

Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer

“I love the way Gordimer writes. You have to read her sentences a couple of times—they’re grammatically perfect but in the wildest ways.” -MG

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

“I think Carver was open about how flawed he was. You can see that in his writing. He’s so compassionate about the characters he created. I find that comforting—thinking about what a mess I am, and we all are, sometimes.” -MG

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (also rec’d by Jamie Lee Curtis)

“You pick up this book and you’re hooked in ten pages. It’s an epic story set in India in the 1970s about a handful of characters who meet in a moment of kindness and live together for a period of time; then they separate again.” -MG

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (also rec’d by Bruce SpringsteenDavid CopperfieldErnest Hemingway, Ethan Hawke, Norman MailerPhilip Roth & Susan Sontag)

“This taught me a lot about acting. You start out thinking Kitty is an idiot or Lévin is naive or Anna’s husband is dead inside—and then you see them crack: Each is both a good guy and a bad guy, capable and not capable, makes mistakes and saves people and saves themselves. That’s what I believe every character in a movie should be, and I hope that the people I play who are easy to judge—the ones that make you think, I’m nothing like that—by the end, you have some insight into them.” -MG

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (also rec’d by Carrie Brownstein, Julianne Moore, Lorde & St. Vincent)

“I read a lot of Joan Didion when I first graduated from college. Like her, I’m from California and was transplanted to New York. Didion is unflinching, but even though she’s observing us from an intellectual place and writing without embellishment, her observations are so clear and so right-on that they end up having an emotional effect on us.” -MG

Another Country by James Baldwin

“This novel is what you fantasize New York was like decades ago and what the cool people—singers and writers—were doing then. Baldwin effortlessly mixes a little philosophy with descriptions of what’s happening with his characters. These are people trying to break out of the constricting shell they’ve been put in, because that’s what their hearts are telling them to do.” -MG

(via O Magazine)

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