Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut Promising Young Women is a novel that will speak to women who have felt the pressure to achieve, to work hard and play hard, women who have struggled to have their voices heard in male dominated industries without being accused of being hysterical or cold. It will speak to young women who have found themselves in situations they aren’t quite ready to handle, women who would rather burn out than openly admit that they are struggling, because struggling proves that you aren’t good enough (and you’ve been telling yourself that anyway).
Jane Peters works at an advertising agency by day and moonlights as an agony aunt, writing pithy advice to her online following. Around her twenty-sixth birthday her life takes some unexpected turns; while her personal life is taken a plunge after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend Max, she is on a career high after a surprising promotion. Matters are complicated when she becomes romantically involved with a more senior colleague, Clem. He’s older and married, and as they become more entangled, Jane starts to question whether her promotion was truly deserved.
Self-sabotage plays an interesting role in the novel. After a successful pitch to a big client, the agency go out to celebrate, and here is where Jane embarks on her tumultuous affair with Clem, but she also has the option of having a harmless romance with a nice, single guy of a similar age. Her affair with Clem starts with the heady rush that all illicit things induce, but when that starts to wear off she finds herself spiralling and the only way out is to hit rock bottom. For someone who is so terrified of failure, it must be strangely freeing once things begin to fall apart to allow the worst to happen. Maybe then someone will actually recognise you need help. In one slightly enraging scene, Jane goes to her GP and instead of getting support she is essentially dismissed as a self-involved snowflake. It begs the question how does she have to suffer for this doctor to take her seriously?
The office politics and the wider sense of gender imbalance was well portrayed, as was Jane’s attempts to fit into a world that wasn’t designed for her to thrive in.
Her blog added a contemporary element to the story. Jane has follow into her advice writing persona of Jolly Politely, and while she never takes her own advice and often seems to write it off the cuff, she has attracted a decent following. As her life starts to disintegrate, she loses control of her online voice. It’s almost as if her subconscious is demanding the help she can’t quite ask for through her online platform.
Things take an unexpected turn towards the end of the novel, but it was an engaging read that perfectly captured the pressure to be successful when you’re young in a world that has little room for error.