We’ve Never Read Anything Quite Like This Book
Trust us, it’s the best thing you’ll read all month
I’ve been reading a lot lately.
A lot objectively but also a lot by my own, admittedly high standards. I used to read a lot as an editor at a website in Australia but it was a superficial kind of reading. I would be sent books to review and I would skim them – the only useful skill I learnt at university was how to read a book and take it in very quickly – and then cast them aside. Now, living in London and jobless (should I try and reframe that as job seeking? Whatever) I have all the time in the world, or rather, all the time in the world to read books.
So I’ve been reading a lot of them. I’ve read serious, chunky literary tomes and interesting entries from my favourite authors’ back catalogues. I’ve read memoirs and books of essays, biographies, a handful of perfect P.D James murder mysteries and a couple of fun novels.
And then I picked up Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women. Suddenly, everything I’ve read this past month has paled in comparison.
Promising Young Women stars Jane, a 26-year-old junior staffer at an advertising agency and part-time agony aunt for an online forum, who has just dumped her longterm, perfect-on-paper boyfriend because she doesn’t love him. He has shacked up with a barrister (“Barristers,” another character says “hatefully”) and wants to buy a house with her. So Jane does what all 26-year-olds do best, she gets rip-roaring drunk and starts an affair with Clem, her swaggering, brilliant boss.
If we’re talking zeitgeist here, Clem has Big Dick Energy. He’s replete with it, riddled with it, and that’s partly why Jane is attracted to him in the first place. The novel careens towards the finish line from there, turning dark quickly. Jane’s hair starts falling out, her body is covered in a rash, her skin erupts in spots. She’s sick, and she can’t figure out why. She starts receiving poison pen letters, telling her to stay away from Clem. She finds out that she’s not the first junior staffer that he’s targeted in this way.
As Promising Young Women turns more and more gothic, the more compulsively readable it becomes. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural, or at the very least the unnatural in this book, but that doesn’t change the supremely relatable themes that reverberate spookily at its heart. Power, and the imbalance of it between men and women in the workforce. Sex, and its inextricable links to power. Loneliness, and the way that women can feel alone even when surrounded by scores of other people.
I read Promising Young Women in one breathless, sweaty go because I quite literally couldn’t put it down. And the scariest bit wasn’t when things between Clem and Jane start souring and curdling as, no spoilers, they inevitably do. It was when Becky, Jane’s put-upon seatmate and team assistant reveals to her that when she goes home to her studio flat she feels completely, utterly alone. Her school friends keep cancelling on catchups, no-one at work wants to spend time with her outside of the office, and she sees a conga line of microwavable ready meals stretching out in her future.
“Those girls don’t even care about being friends,” Becky tells Jane. “Not with me, anyway. No-one even thinks about me.”
“There are few decisions you make at 18 that can truly ruin your life and you haven’t ruined yours,” Jane replies, when Becky tells her that she decided not to go to Cambridge so that she could be closer to her high school boyfriend, who promptly dumped her. “You’re smart and you’re pretty and you’re a homeowner, for Christ’s sake, and you can do anything you want to do. You don’t have to stay in this job if you don’t like it. You could sell your house and do an Eat Pray Love if you wanted to. Travel the world… You could go, and meet someone, or meet a tone of people, or meet no-one. You could have sex at a full-moon party while tripping your face off on mushrooms, if you felt like it. But you can’t give up on yourself. Not now.”
Becky replies: “That kind of thing wouldn’t happen to me. That kind of thing happens to you. Things always happen for people like you.”
In a sense, she’s right. Jane is the kind of girl that things happen to, she’s the literal protagonist of this book. But haven’t you felt a version of that kind of exchange before? Haven’t you ever wondered if you’re the kind of girl that things happen to, or the kind of girl that things don’t? I have.
Promising Young Women (Hachette, $29.99) by Caroline O’Donoghue is on sale now.
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