“I was afraid, really, of being the main character in my own life.”
Promising Young Women is an intelligent and subversive novel that examines the darker and more twisted aspects of a relationship between a female employee and her boss.
There was something about the story and its characters that reminded of Joyce Carol Oates (Zombie, Solstice, A Fair Maiden, and Nemesis) in that Promising Young Women is brimming with an almost palatable darkness so much so that readers will find themselves overwhelmed by it.
From its very opening page the novel juxtaposes the sweet with the grotesque:
“[T]he excess of uneaten cake was attracting rats, and when bodies started appearing — bloated and sugar-filled and, more than once, belly-up in the stairwell — they insisted we downsize.”
This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as we follow the protagonist, a young promising woman, in a feverish journey towards self-destruction. When Jane Peters turns 26 she is newly single (her long-term boyfriend has fallen in love with someone else) and painfully aware of what she perceives as being her own unfulfilled existence. She works at Mitchell Advertisement where she is one of the many “young women” who work alongside—and often for—older men. When Clem, her much older boss, begins to show interest in her, she finds herself rapidly falling under his spell.
The story that follows is very much a subversive take on the trope of the young woman/married older man cliché and from the get go we are made aware of how imbalanced their relationship is. An unmoored Jane feels pressured by the skewed power dynamics between her and Clem into continuing their affair. We witness how slowly yet surely Jane’s sense of self is eroded by Clem and by her own growing dissociation with her past self.
The deceptively simple prose (as opposed to Oates’ more eloquent prose) is compelling and offers readers with a direct look into the mind of an alienated woman. Backdrop to Jane’s disintegration is the dangers of workplace competitiveness, the lack of privacy that comes with being an online presence, and the persistency of the more unseen aspects of sexism (a scene where Jane visits a doctor will have you simmering with rage). It is also a satire of certain trends (‘actualisation’, yoga retreats) in a way that doesn’t minimise from Jane’s—frankly horrific—experiences.
The story blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and as Jane’s body and mind become affected by a series of mysterious ailments, so does the prose attain a feverish quality that perfectly captures the Jane’s fears and anxieties.
Unlike other contemporary novels exploring similar themes, O’Donoghue’s debut never romanticises the way Clem degrades Jane, nor does it suggest that Jane’s weight loss makes her more ‘ethereal’ or ‘aesthetically cool’ (there is none of the usual ‘sharp-cheekbones’ crap) but rather it shows us in horrifying, and almost grotesque detail, Jane’s estrangement from her own body. Clem’s presence in Jane’s life has almost the same effect as an infection…
It was also interesting to read about the way Jane’s ambitions regarding her career affects some of her friendships, or causes those around her to reassess their perception of her. In some ways it is Jane’s ‘promising future’ that makes her dissolution all the more affecting.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a pleasant read. Yes, it was gripping, but more than once I felt sickened by what I was reading. O’Donoghue has created a captivating and terrifying modern Gothic tale which depicts the more poisonous aspects of love affairs, sexism (especially at the workplace), and friendships. Although I was surprised by how weird it ended up being, I completely bought into it.
This was a bizarre, compelling, and thought-provoking debut.
“I choose to be someone that things happen to, because it was easier than being someone who made things happen.”