Caroline O’Donoghue: Promising Young Women
Published By: Virago
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
Jane Peters is an adrift twenty-something by day, and a world-weary agony aunt by night. But when an office party goes too far, Jane dissolves into the high-stakes world of being the Other Woman: a role she has the right advice for, but not the smarts to follow through on.
What starts out as a drunken mistake quickly unravels as Jane discovers that sex and power go hand-in-hand, and that it’s hard to keep your head when you’ve become someone else’s dirty little secret. And soon, her friendships, her sanity and even her life are put into jeopardy…
What I Say:
“We women are taught to make everything we do seem unimportant. And most of us buy into it…. ‘Oh, I just do the press releases,’ or, ‘Oh, I just have the children.’ It’s all bollocks. It really is.”
As you all know, Bookish Twitter and Instagram is a huge part of my blog – many of my recommendations and blog posts come about as a result of reading lots of things, and I use social media endlessly, like most people I know. This is how I found out about Promising Young Women, and I knew that I needed to read it!
Social media and the preconceptions of women in society is a huge part of this novel. It is always in the background – from the advice column that Jane writes anonymously as JollyPolitely, through to the way in which she collates information about women for her pitches in her role as an account manager for an Advertising Company. The power of social media, and the way in which strangers believe they have a right to have an opinion on you and your life is something we can all relate to. It is increasingly permeating every part of our lives, we filter, edit, photoshop and present to the world an image we want to get the most likes and retweets for. I’ve done it, I am sure that we all have. As women our lives are determined by other people telling us what we should be wearing, eating. listening to, reading and what we should be doing with our bodies.
The politics of work and the way in which women are perceived in the workplace is the prevalent theme that runs throughout Promising Young Women. Jane, a twenty something, has an unremarkable role in a company, has just broken up with her boyfriend (who has promptly moved on with someone else), and like many of us when we were in our twenties, seems almost stunned that she is where she is. How many of us believed that when we were starting our working lives that we would be the women that changed the world, that we wouldn’t make the mistakes our mothers had made, and that there was no way we would allow men to talk to us or treat us in an inappropriate way. The trouble with that argument for me, is when I worked in offices in my twenties, those entrenched traditional values and the shrugs of that ‘that’s just the way it is’, meant that little by little, fighting became too hard, too overwhelming. I was young and just wanted a job that paid my bills and meant that I had a chance to live a little.
I left my last job nearly fourteen years ago, to look after my children. When I picked up Promising Young Women, it was like going back in time – so much of what Jane and the female employees go through was happening then. Being referred to as ‘girls’, the assumption that when coffees and teas were needed that we would make them, and of course, the ever present unspoken question of our commitment to our role with the notion of pregnancy and childcare assumed to be part of our futures.
When Jane falls into bed with Clem, the boss with whom she has been singled out to work on a Pizza account, we can only watch from the sidelines as we realise that this is not a burgeoning office romance, but the calculated modus operandi of a married office predator. Clem thrives on his position of power, his ability to charm the younger women he targets, building up their confidence and devotion to him by facilitating their movement up the career ladder. His confidence and absolute disregard for the women he thinks he is doing a favour for, interestingly diverts his bosses from his mediocrity in his role. Just because he shouts the loudest, and has the gift of the gab, doesn’t mean he has the experience to back it up – he has no qualms about passing off other people’s ideas as his own. We discover that Jane is far from his first affair, certainly won’t be the last, and that Clem’s wife has an interesting perspective on his behaviour.
As Jane starts to make progress in her career, people begin to take her seriously and her insight and opinion counts for something – because she is in Clem’s favour. As the novel moves on, the almost gothic relationship with Clem becomes increasingly corrosive, and Jane finds herself emotionally dependent on him if and when he deigns to give her attention. Jane might believe she is a promising young woman, finally finding her place in the professional world, but it is Clem who is controlling her every move.
Jane starts to unravel, little by little as her physical and mental health start to suffer. She is working relentlessly, not eating properly and living hour by hour waiting to be fed any sort of crumb of attention from Clem. For me, I felt this was dealt with in a gradual and entirely believable way. There is not one major incident that starts her decline – Jane simply starts to disintegrate, and the career she has worked so hard for is simply pulled away from her because she is no longer useful. Every piece of work she has done is sidelined to Darla, who was once Jane’s best friend, but is now Clem’s next target. The chilling thing is that Jane cannot do anything about what is happening to her without seeming to be the hysterical young woman Clem is telling everyone she is. When she finally stops Clem, it is brutal and shocking, but necessary and makes perfect sense.
It is at times an uncomfortable read, seeing what not only people will do to become successful, but what they are prepared to do each other too. It is a brilliant indictment of a world that we have all been party to and continue to exist in, and I was utterly entranced by it.
Promising Young Women should not only be required reading for anyone working in an office, but more importantly must be used to start the crucial conversations we need to have about what it truly means to be a woman today.
I loved it.