A novel that manoeuvres pop culture and contemporary concerns with powerful insight
Review by: Joanne O’Sullivan
Promising Young Women. Caroline O’Donoghue. Virago; 351pp; £16.99 hb; 24cm; 978-0-349-00990-2.
O’Donoghue’s début novel joins an impressive cohort of recent ‘millennial’ fiction. Those already satisfied with releases such as Lisa Owen’s Not Working, Lauren Berry’s Living the Dream and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends will be more than happy to encounter a story that delivers just as much as these. Promising Young Women opens with Jane, the adrift narrator, facing the awkwardness of a company birthday celebration while she contends with the messy break-up of her five-year relationship. This opening scene establishes the cynical but playful tone that the rest of the story follows. Birthday cakes have been replaced by cupcakes as the office has expanded. Jane suspects that she might in fact be the ‘best friend’ of her eager-to-please but anxious colleague, and her hungover reflections that she and her ex had been ‘two strays who had been rescued and re-homed as a pair’ lead to her crying in a meeting room. These observations on the disappointments and low-level anxieties of post-university life are the cornerstone of the story, and even when the plot becomes slightly confused by its own drama later on, it is this unfailingly sharp wit that holds everything together.
While most uncertain, late-twenty-somethings might not necessarily engage in an affair with their married, older boss, the majority of female readers will recognise aspects of the problematic relationship Jane establishes with Clem. As well as the impact it has on her career, her affair with Clem leads her down a path of dangerous instability. Their workplace romance starts with a drunken night together, followed by a brief period of teenage longing, constant texting and late nights alone in the office. It’s not long before Jane recognises his insecurity, arrogance and need for control over her. The usual ‘affair with a married man’ tropes are all there: feelings of guilt, jealousy of his wife and, ultimately, disappointment. The damaging power dynamic between the two quickly starts to show, however, and Jane is constantly aware that this ‘isn’t a good choice, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like a choice at all’. While the professional consequences she experiences are not exactly surprising, the deterioration of her mental health throughout the relationship is striking and easily gets under the skin. As with several other aspects of the novel, O’Donoghue manages to create her own version of a well-worn narrative that feels more innovative and relevant than expected.
Jane’s role as an anonymous online agony aunt, Jolly Politely, is yet another feature of the modern day anxieties of young city dwellers. She offers advice to readers dealing with issues like low self-worth, critical parents, troubled marriages, STDs and workplace conflict. The action is interspersed with letters from her devoted readers and her responses. While at first Jane proves to be a no-nonsense yet funny source of guidance, her online forum becomes an unfortunate stage for her declining mental health as the plot progresses. Her determination that her ‘Greek chorus of Jolly fans will be able to direct’ her is short-lived, as she soon becomes the target of insulting and sexist online comments. She even becomes the subject of a Vice feature at the height of her erratic online behaviour. It’s not hard to see the comparisons being made between people’s online personae and messy real lives, particularly in the context of the ‘judge and jury’ age of the internet. This illustration of internet culture and its issues is given enough screen time to be interesting and is a smart background topic. It doesn’t become an overly emphasised plot device, however; as becomes clear throughout the book, O’Donoghue is talented at depicting issues such as this with a light touch and astute skill without the risk of sounding like a preacher.
There aren’t many attempts to make Jane likeable, which makes for an interesting and believable narrator. Her revelation that her boyfriend was forced to break up with her because she had fallen out of love with him and grown to hate him is just a single illustration among many of her immaturity and naive selfishness that is scattered throughout the novel. This self-absorbed naivety is in contrast with her position as the authoritative internet agony aunt. While she is quick to dispense anonymous advice online, this wisdom and sense of perspective doesn’t extend to her personal life. The brief explorations of Jane’s teenage years with her newly single mother provide the background for her counselling skills, when she was forced to become both confidant and coach in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce. Sometimes, when authors make connections such as these, it can feel overstated and a bit cliché. O’Donoghue, however, skilfully establishes these kinds of associations throughout the story, which appear authentic and believable rather than prescriptive. This is particularly impressive for a début novel. She manoeuvres pop culture and contemporary concerns with powerful insight, but also manages to avoid wandering into the common traps of stereotypes and platitudes.
Jane’s problematic relationships with work colleagues, though not heavily explored, are still sharply realised and do justice to the difficult task of making good friends in an increasingly competitive corporate world. Becky, the positive and faithful friend, and Darla, the competitive yet fabulous colleague, are more than stereotypical supporting characters. Both women will be recognisable to most twenty-somethings trying to navigate adult friendships and office politics. In fact, when they retreat into the background in order to make room for more dramatic developments, the reader is deprived of their more interesting contributions. Jane’s nights in with Becky and their conversations about university boyfriends, old school friends and general disappointments have a surprising gravity and emotional impact. It would be unsurprising if this attempt at addressing formidable topics like adulthood, career setbacks and frustrating friendships became too big a task, causing the plot to collapse under the weight of such broad themes. Yet O’Donoghue clearly has her finger on the pulse of these modern-day concerns and is able to illustrate and interrogate them with surgical precision and wit.
The most rewarding aspects of Promising Young Women are undeniably in the small details and fine print. While the drama of her long-term relationship break-up, the affair with her boss and workplace politics all play out around her, the most memorable and affecting aspects of the story are born from Jane’s reflections on her life and relationships. Her observations that happy couples are protected from the uncertainty of life by their cosy brunches and self-satisfied social lives, and her reminiscing about the university and school friends she would barely recognise anymore, will strike a painfully realistic note for the book’s target audience. Drinking bottles of wine alone in her room at weekends, and her eventually more serious mental decline, are brief but effective insights into the anxiety and uncertainty of break-ups, career crossroads and late-twenties’ melancholy. Nevertheless, although the most impressive elements of the novel are the finely tuned details and a striking authenticity, attempts to add further drama to the plot weigh it down and cause that convincing voice to falter.
While navigating her tumultuous relationship with Clem and a later unacknowledged mental breakdown, Jane also starts to receive ambiguous and threatening messages from an unknown sender. These messages are scattered throughout the novel; sometimes there are stretches where the reader might not be sure if they have been abandoned altogether, only to have them reappear with little impact. Jane’s efforts to solve this mystery and the eventual piecing together of the puzzle are similarly underdeveloped and more than slightly unrealistic. The subplot is undeniably dramatic, yet you still find yourself yearning to be returned to O’Donoghue’s razor-sharp observations on Jane’s friendships with colleagues, her past relationship with Max and her reflections on her post-university life. Instead of adding any spark to the story, this slightly empty subplot only succeeds in dimming the light of an already well-crafted novel.
Promising Young Women tackles numerous subjects: millennial anxiety, abusive relationships, workplace pressure, internet culture, mental health and stalking are all explored at some stage. A few of these topics might have been better off forgotten for the sake of a stronger plot, yet the novel is still more than just a collection of contemporary difficulties. Throughout the story the action is underpinned by her discerning observations and upsetting, yet easily recognisable, scenarios. Some of the realities faced might be difficult, but they are convincing, sharp and satisfying. For many writers, a common thread would easily get lost in the array of issues that are explored in the book. O’Donoghue’s main concern, however, remains painfully clear throughout, and her charting of the many obstacles and pitfalls that ‘promising young women’ must overcome in order to succeed is an articulate and brilliant study of contemporary times.
First published in Books Ireland Magazine. Nov/Dec 2018
Review by: Joanne O’Sullivan