Constance Wu on Elena Ferrante, 'Bad Feminist,' and the Book That Helped Her Through a Breakup

constance wu, shelf life

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Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

It’s a busy month for Constance Wu, who has just published a book of essays, Making a Scene (Scribner), and can be seen in live-action musical Lyle Lyle Crocodile with Javier Bardem. The actress likes doing roles wildly different from her previous one. You’ve seen her play a suburban mom (Fresh Off the Boat), econ prof and fiancee of a crazy rich Asian (Crazy Rich Asians), single mother who dances at a strip club (Hustlers), and investigative journalist (The Terminal List), among other roles. She’ll also star in and produce an adaptation of Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin and an adaptation of Ling Ling Huang’s Natural Beauty plus two CRA sequels.

The Richmond, VA-born and -raised, LA-based Wu, is an activist for representation, mental health, and feminist issues; Golden Globe/Screen Actors Guild/Critics Choice nominee, Time 100 Most Influential People of the Year, and Celebrity Jeopardy! contestant.

She did community theater at 12, went to the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute during high school, worked at a bakery where she made good cinnamon rolls, lived in a Buddhist monastery on a secluded mountain top in Taiwan, got her BFA in acting at SUNY Purchase, studied psycholinguistics and was accepted into a graduate program in speech pathology at Columbia, waitressed for 10 years (and once fed Bill Murray’s parking meter), has a Holland Lops bunny rabbit named Lida Rose (for the song in The Music Man), had a black Prius named Masha (for the character in The Seagull), and became a mom during the pandemic.

Good at: dancing at weddings. Bad at: Haggling. Likes: massages and Mentos, sending handwritten letters, being alone in cars, salt, roller coasters, a perfect Manhattan. Give one of her book recs a shot.

The book that...

…helped me through a breakup:

The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert. It’s a book of poetry. In it, there’s a description of heartache that I felt so deeply, I quoted it in my own book.

…I swear I'll finish one day:

None. If a book doesn’t pull me in, I don’t finish it. Life’s too short to read books for the sake of ego or endurance. Read what you love. That said, I was required to read Middlemarch for a Victorian Lit class, and I groaned about it the whole time. But when I got to the very last page, it suddenly sank in for me, and I started weeping. Throughout that whole book, I’d been judgmental of the characters’ small, mundane worries and that last page made me realize that that was like, the point. The unvisited tombs! Just gorgeous. But still? There’s too many good books out there; read what you’re drawn to, what you can’t put down.

...I read in one sitting, it was that good:

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King. She’s such a good writer.

…I’d give to a new graduate:

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. Graduation is a good time to start thinking about things as thoughtfully and thoroughly as DFW did.

...I last bought:

Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout.

...has the greatest ending:

I really liked the ending of Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. It made total sense, but it didn’t feel plotted.

…broke my heart:

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai devastated me.

…helped me become a better writer:

Lovers & Writers by Lily King. There’s a line that says how feelings are physical, so write them that way. It reminded me of the sense memory exercises you learn in Method Acting and is a good way to write.

…is a master class on dialogue:

There’s a short story by Ernest Hemingway called “Hills Like White Elephants” that is almost entirely dialogue, and it’s very good. Epitomizes that iceberg analogy people always attribute to Hemingway.

…should be on every college syllabus:

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrente. I’ve heard some (very smart) folks refer to the women in these books as intense or complicated, but they’re not. They’re real and normal. They only feel complicated in context of how we usually hear women’s stories: from the male perspective, or not at all.

...I’ve re-read the most:

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. I’ve read this book at least 20 times, if not more. It’s about acting and faith—two subjects that are at the core of my personal values. When I’ve lost my way, re-reading this book brings me back to my center.

...I consider literary comfort food:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Dusk is my favorite time of day, and Gilead has a sort of suspended dusk-like quality to it. An old preacher’s life is nearing its end, and he writes his story for his young son to read when he’s older. The images, feelings, and words of this book sit on the heart like a warm salve.

…sealed a friendship:

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Anyone who likes this book, I like them.

...I asked for one Christmas as a kid:

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I got it. I still have it!

Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:

I’d go back in time to the Tuckahoe Public Library before there were computers. I used to spend hours there when I was a kid. Like a soft, well-worn sweater, it always felt so safe and comfy inside—the card catalogues, carpeting, quiet. The cold, metallic water that arched out of the drinking fountain when you pressed against it. Oh, how I miss it!

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