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.


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