Women’s Prize 2020: Shortlist Reaction

The results are in! In case you missed the announcement, this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist contains the following six books:

Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors!


(Again, I’m missing a copy of Weather, thus the backward-facing stand-in.)

My shortlist reviews (so far) are linked in the titles above. For more of my thoughts on this year’s prize titles, be sure to check out my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist wrap-up, which contains the links to all of my longlist reviews and my impression of the set as a whole. Also included are some shortlist predictions, in which I guessed five of these six titles correctly! That is certainly a record for me, and made for a fun reveal. But let’s talk about the list.

First, what isn’t there? A few of my longlist top choices didn’t make the cut, including Actress, which I was never convinced would stand a chance at the shortlist with this set of judges, who seem to prefer accessibility over literary merit. I thought Fleishman is in Trouble might have stood a slightly better chance, as it is a juicier family drama (which these judges seem to favor, if the longlist is anything to go by), and aside from its bold structure it isn’t a particularly literary read, though it is quite smart. But I wasn’t confident enough to place this one on my predictions list either. I’m more surprised not to see Djinn Patrol, which was lower on my favorites list but a great blend of heavier topics with a lighter narrative tone that I thought would appeal to these judges. It’s also a debut novel from an Indian author amidst quite a few well-established US and UK writers. Similarly, How We Disappeared is a debut from a Singaporean author, and also deftly handles some tough themes- I’m heartbroken this one didn’t advance. I didn’t include it on my prediction list mostly as a way to brace myself for this bad scenario of it not advancing, which sadly is what happened.

Also of note, I think, are the absences of The Dutch House and Red at the Bone, neither of which I particularly wanted to advance but both were highly favored among readers.

As for disappointments that did make the cut, the biggest one for me is Dominicana, which hasn’t sat well with me over time (bumped down to 2 stars), mainly for its lackluster presentation of a questionable romance masquerading as an immigration tale. But it does adhere to a particular motherhood story arc that I saw repeated throughout the longlist, which must have particularly appealed to this year’s judges, and on the heels of the American Dirt debacle earlier this year it does at least make a positive political statement about the need to support immigration stories written by immigrants (or their descendants, in this case). I was also underwhelmed by Weather, though aside from it not resonating with me personally I really have nothing against its presence on the shortlist. Most surprising is the appearance of A Thousand Ships, which I did include in my prediction list as a last-minute wild card but regretted almost immediately because it felt like throwing away a vote; after both longlisted Greek retellings (in the wake of which A Thousand Ships accomplishes very little that’s new) featured on last year’s shortlist, it’s a shock to see such a similar sort of story being honored again so immediately. But while I wasn’t quite at the right place in my reading life to love A Thousand Ships, I do think it’s a perfectly fine novel whose main fault is simply having such a tough act (Miller and Barker) to follow.

But there are some reasons to celebrate as well! With two WP shortlistings and two Booker Prize wins under her belt for the previous books in the same trilogy, it is exciting to see Mantel advance with The Mirror and the Light. It would be a great accomplishment to see her win either the WP or the Booker this year with the trilogy’s final book, and I’d very much like her to have that success. I’m also currently reading this trilogy, so its place on the shortlist is also personally motivating and lets me feel my reading is still “relevant” even though I didn’t quite finish this final longlister before the shortlist announcement. But I’m equally thrilled for Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other on the shortlist! After the fiasco of her dual win of the Booker Prize last year with Atwood, it would really be a rewarding accomplishment to see her win this one outright. Helped, of course, by the fact that her experimental novel (mostly) about queer black women in London is an absolutely excellent book. Then there’s O’Farrell with Hamnet, which was my favorite reading experience from this year’s longlist despite not being the most technically well-done. O’Farrell is perhaps a bit less obvious a choice for the winner (though still very deserving!) than Mantel or Evaristo this year, which is appealing in itself.

And some of my least favorites are now left behind as well, another relief. I’m most pleased not to see Girl on the shortlist, which I thought was messy both in content and authorship. I’m also glad not to see Nightingale Point advance, which many longlist readers (especially UK-based) seem to be loving, though I strongly disliked mainly for failing to deliver on its stellar premise. While I had some fun reading The Most Fun We Ever Had, I also thought it had nothing to offer beyond entertainment, which is really not what I look for in a literary prize so am happy to see this one missing from the shortlist as well.

I think the only longlisted book I haven’t mentioned yet is Queenie, so might as well! This was probably the most middle-of-the-road book for me on the longlist, and I was fairly indifferent to its possible shortlisting. It’s a book that I love to see getting commercial attention and was happy to discover on this year’s longlist, but it also left me nothing to think about after closing the cover, which isn’t a trait I would look for in “the best” fiction of the year. I suspect it might have been a bit too thematically similar to the more obvious shortlist choice of Girl, Woman, Other, which probably hurt its chance of advancing this year even if it is a great read.


So, my initial overall impression of the shortlist: It could have been worse! It also could have been better, but it would have been hard to pull a really exciting shortlist out of a longlist that felt so underwhelming to begin with, and I think the three I’m happiest to see on the shortlist also have the best chance of winning, so it’s hard to feel too bitter.

Do I recommend reading the shortlist? Sure! While I don’t think this is the most exciting set of six books, there’s only one that I thought was actually subpar, and some readers seem to be having a better time with it than I did. If you’re a long-time prize fan looking for a literary challenge though, this one might not be for you. But there’s no shame in picking up only what appeals either, even if that isn’t the set of books that made it to the shortlist. I recommend at least glancing through the longlist because this is a great way to find books by women that lots of people are reading and talking about! My top recommendations from the longlist would probably vary by reader, but I would most widely recommend Girl Woman Other, How We Disappeared, Hamnet, and Queenie.

Where I stand: The only shortlister I haven’t read yet is The Mirror and the Light, which is the third book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I am currently reading Wolf Hall, the first book in said trilogy. I’ll plan to review all three books together in one go, probably at the end of April or beginning of May. The winner will not be announced until September 9, so there’s plenty of time to finish up (and I do intend to take it a bit easier both with reading and blogging than I have been the last few weeks)! I’ll probably start gathering my concluding thoughts as soon as I finish the Mantel, while my thoughts are fresh, but I’ll wait to post them with an informed winner prediction until closer to the final announcement date, by which time a refresher will probably be helpful.

But never fear! I’m obsessed with Women’s Prize content these days, so more WP-related posts will still be forthcoming. I’ll be posting about an unaffiliated alternate longlist created from this year’s Women’s Prize eligible books, assembled by a great group of bloggers who’ve closely followed this prize. Whether you’re looking for just a few further recommendations or a whole new reading challenge, stay tuned! 🙂 I’ll also be reading as many previous WP winners as I can over the next five months, reviewing as I go, because September is also the closing of the WP “winner of the winners” public vote! The poll is open now if you’re already prepared to cast your vote; if you’re waiting, I’m planning to post at least a partial wrap-up including some thoughts on all of the past winners I’ve managed to read, complete with a ranked list of my favorites.

In the meantime… let me know what you think of this year’s shortlist! Do you have an early guess for 2020’s winner?


The Literary Elephant


27 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2020: Shortlist Reaction”

  1. Congratulations on your prediction hit rate! Great call on A Thousand Ships. We should have joined forces, we could have got all six 🙂

    I’m musing as to whether I should re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies now, or just jump straight into The Mirror and the Light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I was shocked that A Thousand Ships actually made the list, I regretted choosing it almost as soon as I walked away from the post because it seemed so unlikely! We were both so close that a team effort might have been just the trick to hit all six. 🙂

      There are so many characters and details in the Cromwell trilogy that for me it’s necessary to read them all together, but this chapter of history isn’t my strong suit to begin with. Whichever way you decide, I’ll look forward to your final thoughts on the trilogy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t actually read any of these books yet (I’ve been so busy/in such a slump recently), but this was such a good post, I’m going to try and read a few. I’m interested to read A Thousand Ships because I love Greek retellings, but i’ll have to try out some of your other recommendations!


  3. Five out of six is pretty great! I’m happier than you are that Weather got included, but I agree – it could’ve been worse. My biggest disappointment was Dominicana, but at the same time I felt it’s the kind of book that’d be picked, anyway.

    I’m still on the fence about joining the #ReadingWomen challenge – given how disappointing the longlist was, I’m now a little leery of going through another list. I think I’ll wait for your reviews to see if I should jump in.

    I’m looking forward to your alternate longlist! I’d like to pick up great reads after I go through the rest of the longlisted books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I really didn’t mind Weather even though there were a couple of others that would have excited me more to see on the shortlist. It doesn’t seem out of place at all though!

      I’ll definitely be taking it easy with the previous WP winners. I think I’ve read 8 so far and I’d like to focus on the titles that I think might affect my vote but it’ll depend on what’s most available. I’ll for sure be spacing them out over the next few months and not going out of my way to finish them all “on time,” like I did with this year’s longlist. I want to savor these instead of rushing through!

      Thank you! I think the alternate longlist will be my next post. I was so focused on finishing the longlist that I’m a bit unprepared as far as scheduling the rest of the month, oops! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I found that I have a couple of the previous books on my TBR (and gathering dust on my shelves), so I might just read those instead. And right with the savouring—going through this list with the books I have so I can be “on time” was a little taxing, to be honest. I’m still new to blogging so I didn’t know that reading and blogging could be so much work! It’s a fun kind of work, but still takes effort.

        Same though—I’m a bit lost as to what will happen with my blogging schedule after this, especially once I’ve finished How We Disappeared. 😂 As usual, I look forward to your posts!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yay, I’d love to see your thoughts on any previous winners you pick up, whenever you get to them! 🙂

        I definitely agree, as fun as reading and blogging are they can take a lot of time and effort very easily. I’ve been blogging for a few years but I usually don’t stick to a very rigid schedule so I still find challenges like prize lists can be surprisingly exhausting! I didn’t realize quite how much I needed a break until after the shortlist announcement, and I’ll for sure be slowing down a bit now with that sense of deadline removed. I hope you’ll find a comfortable pace soon as well, it’s always frustrating when a hobby starts to feel too much like a chore.
        I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next for you as well! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I completely agree re: Hamnet not being the most technically advanced. It makes me v curious to try more of O’Farrell’s work, since I enjoyed it so much even though everyone seems to agree her writing is stronger elsewhere!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Whoa, nice job guessing 5 out of 6 of the titles! You make a great point that this is a pretty good shortlist given the longlist the judges were choosing from. And great idea to compile an “alternate longlist” after this year’s actual longlist was fairly lackluster; I’m looking forward to your list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 If ever there was a year to look beyond the longlist, I think this is it. It was definitely fun following along and I will for sure still be interested to see who wins, but there were so many great titles that somehow missed the list. I’m excited to chat about more of them!


  5. I’m also surprised How We Disappeared isn’t on there. Another blogger mentioned that there are three historical fiction books all by white women from the UK, which seems disappointing.

    Why the heck are they taking until September to decide??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the shortlist is heavy on historical fiction and light on diversity! To be fair there was an awful lot of historical fiction on the longlist so it would’ve been difficult to escape it in the shortlist, but branching out from UK and US writers would have helped. I think Evaristo and Cruz are the only WOC on the list- Evaristo is fully British and Cruz is Dominican-American. O’Farrell is British-Irish, and that’s the extent of diversity on the shortlist. It is definitely disappointing that even these authors (and their books!) are still very UK and US based. Especially since How We Disappeared and/or Djinn Patrol are excellent books that certainly could have held their own on the shortlist!

      I’m guessing the delay is related to the ceremony and readings from the shortlist that they usually hold for the winner announcement; I bet they want to do hold those events in person like usual and since we can’t have gatherings right now they’re holding off. Also, shortlists are usually a great boost in sales for those authors, but with bookstores mostly closed that’ll likely be affected this year, so maybe they’re also trying to give the authors a better chance at letting readers find their books! But the WP is annual and they’ll have to start preparing for next year by then so even if the world isn’t back to normal by September I doubt they would be able to hold off any longer without affecting future prize dates as well.


      1. Sorry, I didn’t make that very clear in my post! The winner is usually announced about a month after the shortlist but there was an announcement several weeks ago that it was being delayed this year. I forget not everyone pays as much attention to the details of this prize, I should have mentioned it!


  6. This shortlist doesn’t seem super surprising to me, based on the reviews I’ve read. How We Disappeared was the title I’m most interested in so it would have been nice to see that advance. I kind of want Girl, Woman, Other to win simply because I think Evaristo got the short end with the Booker last year. Of the actual shortlist, I think I’m going to cheer for O’Farrell because I also want to read Hamnet and have no current plans to read any of the others!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Somehow I missed this comment, sorry!!
      I definitely recommend checking out How We Disappeared if it interests you, even though it missed the shortlist. I do think Evaristo and O’Farrell both have a good chance at winning this year! I think the Women’s Prize likes to award writers who haven’t already been recognized by the Booker so I suspect O’Farrell has just as good a chance as the perhaps more obvious choices of Mantel and Evaristo. Giving the win to Evaristo outright after her shared Booker win would be a great statement in itself though, so I do think she’s still solidly in the running. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. But in any case, I do hope you’ll enjoy Hamnet, I thought it was such a lovely read!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve picked up a copy of How We Disappeared and have pre-ordered the paperback of Hamnet. I’m looking forward to reading both. I haven’t been super drawn to Girl, Woman, Other but if it ends up winning both this one and the Booker then I think I’ll have to read it!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ooh, yay! I hope you’ll enjoy them both!
        I suspect you would enjoy Girl Woman Other- it reminded me a bit of Gyasi’s Homegoing, though its focus is more modern than historical. But what you read is totally your choice, of course! I do hope more people will pick it up if it wins. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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