Promising Young Women by Caroline O'Donoghue

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Virago, 2018

★★★★★

Our company is teeming with women under thirty, and men approaching or over fifty. That is how the food chain works. Dozens of attractive young women do the grunt work for a handful of men, and the women get filtered out by motherhood. It is the corporate version of natural selection.

On her 26th birthday, Jane finds herself newly single, unfulfilled by her office job and negotiating the difficult world of work friendships. She’s a bit lost, so it’s maybe a little ironic that her online alter-ego, agony aunt Jolly Politely, seems to have all the answers for her fans.

When she kisses affair with her much older, very much married boss, Clem, she is definitely not following her own advice, but she can’t help herself from falling into an affair, seduced by his attention and her own success at work that seems to come alongside. But, as time goes on, the affair starts to jeopardise her friendships, her career and even her life…

What starts as a fairly conventional chick-lit-style story of a restless younger woman turning to an older man for answers becomes so much darker and more interesting as the story progresses, weaving in smart social commentary with modern Gothic elements and a plot line that will keep you guessing. It’s deliciously sinister, twisting many of the familiar tropes of women’s fiction and ‘coming of age’ stories into something clever and new, with a real feminist edge and a dark sense of humour. I was constantly blindsided by the sucker punch observations about the realities of being a woman in the workplace, and I wanted to highlight pretty much every other sentence for its wisdom and wit.

I particularly enjoyed the cast of secondary characters, from Jane’s stand-offish roommate ‘Shiraz’ to Wendy, the only female manager at the company, who Jane simultaneously admires and pities. It’s all achingly familiar for your average millennial woman, and O’Donoghue captures so much of the nuance of workplace sexism and the struggles of being a twentysomething woman, wanting to climb the career ladder but constantly being pushed down a rung by something, whether it’s competitive jealousy, a lack of self-belief or something more sinister.

We have all ready many books about women and work and friendships and affairs but ‘Promising Young Women’ really stands out from the crowd. If this is her debut, I can’t want to see what Caroline O’Donoghue does next.


Recommendations

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My Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper

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Scribner, October 2018

★★★☆☆

Have you ever noticed that when God closes a door, he opens a window? Neither have I. But I have noticed that timing and luck sometimes line up in such a way that you can catch a break.

In this collection of essays, star of The Office (US) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Ellie Kemper charts her life from her childhood in St. Louis through her ‘sports monster’ days in college and into the heady world of New York improv comedy.

I really like Ellie Kemper as an actress and, from what I can tell, since we have never met, as a person. I even like her as a writer; this book is as charmingly quirky and full of positivity as you’d expect from her. I didn’t, however, like this book all that much. Whilst each of the essays was enjoyable, and I always like to hear about what Tina Fey is like in real life for when we become best friends, it felt like more of a collection of anecdotes than a book. There was no greater narrative purpose or deeper meaning behind the essays; I was waiting for it but it never came. Having read and loved some of Ellie’s colleagues books in a similar style, like Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please, My Squirrel Days just felt a bit flat in comparison.

I think this is probably because she’s lived a fairly charmed life; not to downplay her talent or achievements, but she’s from a lovely-sounding, wealthy family who were emotionally and, more importantly, financially supportive, and she had some early lucky breaks in her career. It’s wonderful for her, and I’m pleased that she ended up on our TV screens in shows that I love, but it’s not the most exciting journey to read - there’s not a whole lot of struggle or conflict, just some light-hearted, amusing tales. There were some definite laugh out loud moments, but it felt a bit like a book written for a book’s sake - which is a bit of a waste of Kemper’s wit and charm.


Recommendations

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Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided free of charge from the publisher for review purposes. This post contains affiliate links which means that if you click through and purchase something, I'll receive a very small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for reading and keeping Readers Gonna Read running!