Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

heads up: in this review i will be discussing self-harm

Described as being a ‘sharp’ and ‘witty’ debut Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s Mona At Sea is neither of those things. The novel tells yet another tale about an alienated millennial woman having a quarter midlife crisis. While Mona At Sea is far from terrible it is a novel that is clearly riding the coattails of its betters (to name a few that i liked: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, Pizza Girl, Severance, You Exist Too Much, Pretend I’m Dead, books by Caroline O’Donoghue; to name a few i did not like all that much: Milk Fed, Exciting Times, Hysteria, The New Me, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, Three Rooms, and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody). Not only does almost everything about Mona At Sea read like a poor imitation of these novels—from its trying but failing to be sardonic tone to its ironic characterisation (we have the ‘dudebro’, the rich friend with body image problems, the leery ‘this is a boys’ club’ businessmen) and, the pièce de résistance, its self-sabotaging main character—and doesn’t bring anything new to this ‘alienated women’ subgenre.

Set in 2008 the story is narrated by Mona Mireles, a twenty-three-year-old who majored in finance at the University of Arizona. After the job she was promised at an investment bank in New York falls through due to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Mona, a high-achiever who has dedicated herself to her studies and future career, is unemployed and struggling to keep afloat. She sends hundreds of applications but is unwilling to look for jobs outside the finance sector as she is unwilling to compromise.
What follows is a rather typical narrative in which Mona engages in self-destructive and antisocial behaviour, pushing those close to her away, until she eventually finds herself lowering her ‘expectations’ and getting a job at a telemarketing business and re-assessing why she’s so set on getting into finance.
We don’t learn much about her relationship with her parents, other than her mother seems to have always pressured her into aiming high while her father has encouraged her to take time to ‘find herself’ and pursue something that she actually likes. The two are having marriage problems but these are broached superficially, partly due to Mona’s solipsism, which leads her to ignore those around her, and partly because the narrative just doesn’t seem all that intent on giving depth to those two characters, let alone their marriage.
Her younger brother is a typical dudebro who is far more likeable than Mona herself. The men Mona begins frequenting are similar shades of dickish. Mona’s relationship with her best friend seemed a poor imitation of the toxic one from My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
A clip starring Mona goes viral and she’s occasionally approached because of it (she’s nicknamed ‘Sad Millennial’ as she was crying during this interview which occurred after she discovered that she would not be getting her ‘dream’ job after all).

As Mona struggles to make it through each day, she engages in self-harm. Here the novel became off-putting, especially in its sensationalist approach to this subject matter. Fyi, not that it should bear any weight on the ‘validity’ of my opinion on this (after all, this is my own personal opinion, others readers will undoubtedly feel differently and all that jazz), I used to self-harm throughout most of my teens. Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, ‘artistic’ even as the scars she’s inflicting on her thigh depict Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (and yes, her second name happens to be lisa). Now, I know that there are those who carve words & probably images on themselves however here Mona’s self-harming is elevated into being an artistic expression, she who for so long had focused on engaging and pursuing those kinds of activities that will enhance her career prospects, is creative after all! Wow! Amazing. And (minor spoilers i guess), the guy she dates later in the novel (a douchebag to be honest) takes photos of her ‘Mona Lisa’, telling her the usual patronising bullshit on the lines of ‘your scars are beautiful’ and ‘they show you are survivor’ and pressures her into accepting his request to showcase these photos. When she refuses she also snaps at him for other reasons and is shown to be the unreasonable one (there she is blaming him for her parents’ troubles or her own insecurity or her not so great career prospects). In the end, guess what? She gives in! And it all works in her favor! The guy was right after all. Puah-lease. And I hated that Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, Not Like Other Self-Harmers. I came across an interview with the author where she said that she had no sensitivity readers (quelle surprise) but she did a lot of research on the topic of self-harming and that anyway Mona’s self-harming is atypical. First, I’m afraid I will dislike anyone who shows too much fascination with something like self-harming. It makes me feel like a subject, a rat lab. Second, why, why, why does her self-harming need to be so on the nose? She’s called Mona Lisa and here she is carving Mona Lisa into her thigh. Like, wtf?
The narrative tries to go for this caustic tone, but I found it painfully unfunny and not particularly amusing. Its satire has no bite, its social commentary was not particularly insightful, and its depiction of unemployment, depression, self-harm were shallow indeed.
But the worst offender in this novel is Mona herself. I usually end up loving or rooting for supposedly unlikable characters (they can be vain & cruel like Emma Bovary, or assholes like Ronan Lynch, or fucked up like Moshfegh’s narrator) but Mona was just so annoying. She’s a perfectionist, we get it. She’s been ‘made’ that way, it isn’t entirely her fault. Her mother and her teachers and professors have had a hand in making her so career and goal obsessed. To have a successful and prestigious career is to be happy…right? Except that things don’t go as per plan for Mona and she feels understandably lost…and yet, even bearing this in mind, I still found her insufferable. She wasn’t funny, or clever, or sympathetic. For most of the narrative she’s self-centred, ungrateful, and just painfully annoying. And yes, she does ‘grow’ (supposedly) but even so I did not feel invested in her arc. People call her out on her shit and she learns to be a better person. And could I bring myself to care? No. I did not. Part of me thinks that she had it easy all things considered (especially if we consider that she got to age 22/23 without having to work so that she could fully dedicate herself to her studies…).
Maybe if you haven’t read any of the novels I mentioned above and you are not particularly bothered by how a story handles self-harming you might find this a more rewarding read than I did.

my rating: ★★½

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