Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue

Virago (Little, Brown Book Group)

Jane Peters is a young woman who is not particularly promising. She has stagnated in a marketing position in a London advertising firm, content enough to facilitate focus groups and surveys, happy in her life with a boyfriend who’s a little bit older and earns significantly more. Or so she thought. Shortly before the story begins Jane’s boyfriend has broken up with her, claiming that it’s because she doesn’t love him anymore. Which is true. But the upheaval is still traumatic, not to mention her 26th birthday has just rolled along.

Having your birthday fall on the same day as your breakup is not ideal, especially considering she works in an office that likes to make a big deal of each and every employee’s yearly trip around the sun. In no mood to celebrate turning another year older as she takes a step backwards in the progression of her life, Jane is surprised to hear a superior account manager sing to her with gusto. Clem Brown has never paid her much attention before so she’s surprised by this interest he’s taken in her, and even more surprised, and then grateful and then satisfied when he gets her on to a creative account where she begins to thrive.

Inevitably her personal life begins to creep into her professional and lines begin to cross. Clem is a force to be reckoned with, both nurturing and negging (the ‘art’ of underhandedly insulting a woman in order to keep her interested). He begins to display typical symptoms of a middle aged man in power seducing his young, vibrant protégé and while Jane is caught up with the excitement and glamour of it all at first she soon begins to question his motives. Unusual things start to happen to her too – unexplained Promisingweight, hair and memory loss being the tip of the iceberg. Who is Clem really? A demonic Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick type character, draining the life-blood of this promising young woman? Just a stereotypical office predator who chews up and spits out a string of women in the office place, or even a man in a position in power who happens to fall in love with a younger woman and doesn’t know how to handle it.

Where once young women were expected to look pretty for the menfolk, churn out and raise almost single-handedly a few chizzlers while her husband (no unmarried mothers were allowed enter this equation) did the real hard work of bringing home the bacon to his wife/unpaid servant, now they’re expected to get an exceptional Leaving Cert, head to college and forge an impressive career as well as doing all of the above! Studies show that in heterosexual couples, even when both partners/parents work it is more often than not still the woman who bears the brunt of the housework and child rearing. Humph. Jane, like many other women in male-dominated workplaces, finds it difficult to reconcile her sudden interest in her career while holding on to this toxic man who she can’t help but be drawn to, with the self-imposed pressure and reluctance to yield in either department ultimately taking its toll on her overall health.

Irish writer Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel is witty and wry, funny, dark and… strange. In the beginning it has all the hallmarks of a Mad Men type story told from the perspective of the unfortunate innocent used and abused by the Don Draper character, but it becomes much weirder and more intense, without losing the smart, knowing and indeed funny writing style employed. It certainly captures very well a certain type of woman; not all that innocent, intelligent, pretty but adrift in the world, seduced by power and accomplishment and unable to deal, on her own, with the consequences. The book is dedicated “to women in offices, everywhere”, nodding to this litany of women who have struggled with the various office politics that still have them work twice as hard to get half as far.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 18th July 2018

 

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