Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue
First things first: I devoured this book. I stayed up late reading it; I read it in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep; I toted it around in my handbag during the day so I could whip it out at any opportunity.
Achieving that kind of page-turner-ness is no mean feat, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that this is Caroline O’Donoghue’s first novel.
At 28, the Irish author has already settled into a warm, relaxed, confident writing style. This combined with Promising Young Women’s fast-moving, salacious plot made for an addictive reading experience.
The novel opens as Jane Peters celebrates her 26th birthday – although, we quickly find out, there isn’t much to celebrate. She has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend and is still living with him, even though he’s moved on to someone new. She works at a London advertising agency but is stuck at the bottom of the ladder, running focus groups.
The one area where she really shines is one no one else knows about – her anonymous online life as agony aunt Jolly Politely. As Jolly, Jane always has the right advice, but she doesn’t tend to practise what she preaches – especially when it comes to Clem Brown, the much older and much more senior workmate who sets out to seduce her.
As Jane is drawn deeper into Clem’s world, the novel takes a sinister turn and begins to feel more thriller than romance. At this point, it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. O’Donoghue flirts with the supernatural but then backs away, leaving me wishing she’d had the conviction to go either all in or all out.
All three of the book-jacket blurbs – including the one by Marian Keyes, whom I would trust with my life – rave about how “timely” Promising Young Women is. Indeed, in the wake of #metoo, the moment seems perfect for a savvy millennial’s no-holds-barred take on sex in the workplace.
But this, I’m afraid, is not that take. O’Donoghue is often sharp and witty (Jane’s description of being infatuated with one of her workmates – “I have watched the hair on his forearm as if it were a crop I was personally tending to” – particularly tickled my fancy). The book’s overall worldview, though, is oddly regressive, peppered with truisms like “women love telling other women new and preferably confidential information” and “[i]t was joyous, big eating, the way women eat only when there are no men around”. And it doesn’t have much to say about the nuances of gender relations, choosing instead to stick to the well-worn storyline of predatory-man-meets-vulnerable-woman. Strip out the references to iPhones and so on, and this book could have been written in 1968, not 2018.
So, as pleasurable as the journey was, Promising Young Women ultimately left me cold, failing as it did to deliver either the full-blown horror or the incisive social commentary it seemed to, well, promise.
Reviewer: India Lopez