This year has truly brought to the fiction scene some of the most stunning and powerful female characters. From the extreme – such as My Absolute Darling’s Turtle Alveston – to the proudly millennial – such as Sally Rooney’s characters – there is now an abundance of female leads holding up a mirror to today’s society, reflecting many, often as of yet unarticulated observations and feelings.
In her debut novel, Caroline O’Donoghue has decided to tackle some of the most relevant issues concerning young women of the twenty-first century: gender imbalance at the workplace, career versus personal life, growing degrees of separation from friends and family, and grappling with adulthood in an era that demands that girls become women at an increasingly young age.
Jane Peters is a 26-year-old young woman living in London. She has worked for an advertising agency for around two years – largely unnoticed – and has been in a happy relationship with her boyfriend, Max. We meet her when all this is about to change. After embarking on a romantic relationship with her married, much older and more senior colleague, Clem, everything Jane knew begins to crumble. As her career advances, Jane cannot help but wonder whether this is solely due to her involvement with Clem – and as the relationship inevitably deteriorates, some darker secrets begin to surface. Jane will be tried both physically and mentally before she can emerge on the other side.
Promising Young Women starts out very promising indeed. The initial plot direction – that of a young woman having to balance her love life and her career, especially when the two are confined to the same space – is common enough for readers to be able to understand and sympathise. It has all the ingredients to become a solidly romantic story. O’Donoghue also gives Jane’s friendly relationships stage time: her best friend, Darla feels spiteful and jealous as Jane advances up the career ladder, and her co-worker, Becky, is desperately trying to make a friend out of Jane as her childhood friends all drift towards husbands and babies. It is really in this first half of the book that the ’promising’ angle is explored, and where O’Donoghue succeeds in creating a realistic world for many London-living women of age 25 and up.
In addition to her working life, Jane also runs an online agony aunt blog, where she anonymously dishes out life advice to those willing to listen. This is where she really thrives, although as is often the case, she is unable to take her own advice. There is context to this throughout the book: growing up with an absent father, Jane becomes the pillar of moral and emotional support for her mother until she later remarries. O’Donoghue does not let the absent father issues become a cliché, however, and her sharp language veers towards the satirical when Jane decides to unload her past onto Clem in what is deemed (at the time) a romantic moment. The entire book is written in an engaging and often satirical voice, which only occasionally suffers from over-explaining or repetition.
As the book proceeds to explore further Jane’s workplace affair, things become quite muddled, and take a turn for the dramatic. Introducing magical realism and thriller-esque elements, the novel veers towards a mix of genres where no single thread can really emerge as dominating. The original realist viewpoint is lost to what feels more like commercial women’s fiction. Characterisation suffers greatly – apart from Jane, none of the characters are truly explored, leaving them feeling somewhat shallow and one-dimensional. Jane often does not read like a 26-year-old. Clem is pictured as a villain; Becky, the loyal supporter, and Deb, an older co-worker as the mentor figure. There is no real spectrum between black and white characters.
How Do You Like Me Now by Holly Bourne, published earlier this year, is comparable to O’Donoghue’s novel in that it also actively aims to tackle early adulthood; but while Promising Young Women regularly skips between genres in the second, more fast-paced half of the novel (bringing the book to a thriller conclusion and abandoning its original, realistic tone), Bourne sticks to painting a convincing picture. Saying this however, it would of course be detrimental to expect the same thing of two contemporary writers, both fine writers who each demand different expectations, and are both enjoyable in their own way.
The author clearly has an original and engaging style, and the book is helped endlessly by the wit and humour in her writing. While at times Promising Young Women can feel like a writer finding their voice, this is part of the experimental energy of reading a debut author. From what we can see from this particular debut, O’Donoghue’s literary horizons are looking very promising indeed.
Promising Young Women, Caroline O’Donoghue, Little Brown Book Group, 2018, 352pp, £16.99 (hardback)
Words by Vera Sugár.
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