Sunday 22 September 2019

Brilliantly sharp and timely tale

Fiction: Promising Young Women, Caroline O'Donoghue, Virago, hardback, 352 pages, €20.49

Strikingly fresh: Caroline O'Donoghue
Strikingly fresh: Caroline O'Donoghue
Promising Young Women by Caroline O'Donoghue

Tanya sweeney

Let's talk for one minute about that much-maligned term, 'chick lit'. Though it has mercifully ebbed away from its once ubiquitous status, it's a devious label, intimating as it does that the books written by young women, often about young women in contemporary and aspirational lives, are somehow lesser than their male counterparts.

There is no comparable fiction genre for men who write about the human condition in a light-hearted or humorous way. The greatest irony about this is that some of the most resonant and vivid books about what it means to be living in the 21st century are now being written by women. These authors are writing with a deftness and lightness of touch, delivering compulsively addictive, smart and readable books that might once upon a time have befallen the label of 'women's fiction'.

The good news is that many of those leading the current charge, from Sally Rooney to Louise O'Neill, are Irish.

The latest addition to their ranks is young and strikingly fresh, but is no literary neophyte. Cork-born O'Donoghue has been honing her craft as a thinker and social commentator as a contributing editor for, known for its astute and conversational writing on everything from feminism to fashion.

And in her debut novel, O'Donoghue shows a remarkable grasp on the intricacies of womanhood. Her heroine, Jane Peters, is an ambitious, 26-year-old advertising executive who, up until now, has been languishing in the admin department of the London ad agency she works for. Fresh from a messy break-up with Max (complete with an especially annihilating, post-split night out), Jane comes to the attention of her forty-something boss, Clem. In time, we find that he is a time-honoured sleaze, who doesn't care if he is the cliché boss buying his young staffers expensive lingerie or booking them into hotels far from the office. Jane is evidently a hot talent in her own right, and is soon promoted to Account Executive. Alas, her promotion comes hot on the heels of her fling with Clem, leaving even her wondering if she gained her promotion on merit. For all her gimlet-eyed observations, Jane is helpless in the riptide of Clem's attentions. In the hands of a different writer this would make for a very trying protagonist, but given that Promising Young Women is shot through with plenty of warmth and wit, Jane Peters becomes the ladyshambles we all root for. All the while, Jane writes an anonymous agony aunt column under the name Jolly Golightly, answering with a shrewd and salty wisdom on matters from the gender pay gap to emotional affairs.

As the book progresses, the blog becomes the pivot for a sub-plot in which Jane is receiving spooky anonymous emails, though it works as a neat way to show O'Donoghue's very fine grasp on most aspects of womanhood and gender relations. And like the likes of Nora Ephron's Heartburn or even Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary, Promising Young Women positively thrums with relatability and honesty. That the #MeToo movement has swollen in recent months only serves to lend O'Donoghue's book even more urgency and resonance.

In some ways, Promising Young Women has much in common with the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag or Lena Dunham's Girls. Most charming of all is Jane's interactions with the women around her. There's her flatmate Shiraz - a woman so emotionally cold that Jane basks in the glow of even the smallest gesture, like a shared pizza. There are her work friends Becky and Darla: the former is needy, friendless and socially out on a limb, while the latter can't quite reconcile herself with Jane's run of professional good fortune. And there's Deb, the high-level advertising exec who revels in being a working mother where others appear more furtive or apologetic about it.

Promising Young Women may seem, at the outset, like a story we've heard before; ambitious girl takes on the city and her married, older boss. Yet O'Donoghue lets a gripping tale eventually unfurl. Clem is much more than a pervy old boss, while Jane's mental and physical well-being takes a shocking turn. Make no mistake, there is a brilliant sharpness underneath what may seem like a glossy surface.

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