TThe life of women in their twenties and thirties is ripe for unpacking: it is a time of great change, personal epiphanies, and self-making. In recent years, the enormous popularity of Sally Rooney and her ilk shows that there is a constant hunger for these stories, especially as the ugly truths and minutiae of women’s lives have historically been sidelined.
From covers to content, “sad girl lit” is undoubtedly a current literary trend. It almost always focuses on white, straight, middle-class women; While their struggles are valid, they have a lot to lean on. Some of the books in this field are surprisingly original and insightful: Meg Mason’s 2020 novel Sorrow and Bliss is a wry, clever exploration of living with mental illness, and some follow a more predictable trajectory of overcoming adversity to find satisfaction.
Melbourne-based novelist Genevieve Novak’s debut, No Hard Feelings, fits neatly into the second category. It follows Penny Moore, a typical 26-year-old living in an inner-city share house and working with a punishing micro-manager at a digital marketing agency. She drinks too much. She spends endless hours slipping into dating apps. She is hopelessly in love with an ex-boyfriend, who sees her as a convenient connection. Her lifelong best friends are moving forward in her lives: Annie is a lawyer with a promising new girlfriend, and Bec is recently engaged. While her trio once seemed unbreakable, Penny feels like she’s falling behind.
The novel is a long list of Melbourne landmarks and cultural references: Novak names in inner-north pubs and bars, indie bands and TV shows. The ex is a laughable cliché: a Ph.D. student with a passion for Radiohead, vinyl, Doc Martens, and secondhand clothes. And Penny’s workplace scenes are excruciating in their rendition of digital marketing jargon, especially when written in email form. If it wasn’t so incredibly serious, a lot of it could be read as a parody, and I say that as someone who is a very important part of this world.
To Novak’s credit, she incorporates some diversity into her novel in a way that mostly feels natural. Penny’s friends are gay and people of color (facts mentioned only in passing or implied), and there is a self-awareness in the characters that reflects the changing social tides. But this sometimes reads as superficial regurgitation of buzzwords, as when Penny thinks, “I have a lot of respect for an ethically sound company run almost exclusively by women, many of them women of color.”
Like so many women in many of these books, Penny is a mess. She is a master of self-sabotage. Her inner monologue is often unpleasant, with herself and with others; There are several instances of fatphobia throughout the novel, and perhaps they’re there to illustrate the vapid concerns of twenty-somethings, but it’s still uncomfortable to read. Penny’s solipsism is not unique: she is very much the driving force behind these very interior novels. But given the ubiquity of this kind of writing right now, it’s all starting to feel like white noise rather than deep insight.
The rise of therapy among millennials finds its way into this novel in a way that is most rewarding. Penny’s sessions with her psychologist, Dr. Minnick, are reminiscent of the doctor-patient relationship on the excellent TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Dr. Minnick’s dialogue sometimes reads like a self-help book, but Novak’s intent is admirable.
There are many similarities to British author Dolly Alderton’s 2020 novel Ghosts, not the least of which is the fact that both protagonists’ elusive objects of affection share a name. Like Penny, Alderton’s narrator Nina finds herself unfairly judging her friends in light of her own romantic failures. The contrast is that Nina’s journey ends not with romance, but with the acceptance that her life may not reflect the conventional path. Nina, however, is in her early thirties, what a difference a few years can make.
While Penny acknowledges at the end of No Hard Feelings that the rewards can be found in new beginnings, or just living in the moment, and not just fairy tale endings, her happiness still comes from outside sources: a steady boyfriend, a job best paid. . Perhaps this is simply the reality of living under capitalism in the West: Even when emotional peace is the goal, these traditional arbiters of success continue to mean a satisfying ending.