The lives of women in their twenties and thirties are ripe for unpacking: it’s a time of great change, personal epiphanies and coming into one’s own. Over the past few years, the enormous popularity of Sally Rooney and her ilk proves that there is a constant hunger for these stories, especially since 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 centre on white, heterosexual, middle-class women; while their struggles are valid, they’ve got a lot to fall back on. Some of the books in this field are startlingly original and insightful – Meg Mason’s 2020 novel Sorrow and Bliss is a wry, intelligent exploration of living with mental illness – and some follow a more predictable trajectory of overcoming adversity to find contentment.
Melbourne novelist Genevieve Novak’s debut No Hard Feelings slots neatly into the second category. It follows Penny Moore, a typical 26-year-old who lives in an inner-city sharehouse and works under a punishing micromanager at a digital marketing agency. She drinks too much. She spends endless hours swiping on dating apps. She is hopelessly in love with an ex-boyfriend, who sees her as a convenient hookup. Her longtime best friends are making strides in their lives: Annie is a lawyer with a promising new girlfriend, and Bec has recently become engaged. While once their trio seemed unbreakable, Penny feels as if she’s falling behind.
The novel is a laundry list of Melbourne hotspots and cultural references: Novak namechecks inner-northern pubs and bars, indie bands and TV shows. The ex is a laughable cliche: a PhD student with a passion for Radiohead, vinyl, Doc Martens and op-shopped clothing. And the scenes at Penny’s workplace are excruciating in their replication of digital marketing jargon, especially when written in email form. If it weren’t so incredibly earnest, much of it could read as parody – and I say that as someone who is very much a part of this world.
To Novak’s credit, she works some diversity into her novel in a way that mostly feels natural. Penny’s friends are queer and people of colour (facts mentioned only in passing or through implication), and there’s a self-awareness in the characters that reflects the shifting social tides. But this sometimes reads like shallow buzzword regurgitation, such as when Penny thinks: “I have such respect for an ethically sound company led almost exclusively by women, several of them women of colour.”
Like so many women in so many of these books, Penny is a hot mess. She is a master of self-sabotage. Her inner monologue is often unkind, to herself and to others; there are various instances of fatphobia throughout the novel, and perhaps they are there to illustrate the vapid concerns of twentysomethings, but it is still uncomfortable to read. Penny’s solipsism is not unique – it’s largely the driving force of these very interior novels. But given the ubiquity of this kind of writing at the moment, it all starts feeling like white noise rather than profound insight.
The rise of therapy among millennials makes its way into this novel in a way that’s more gratifying. Penny’s sessions with her psychologist Dr Minnick call to mind the patient-doctor relationship in the excellent television 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 least the fact that the elusive objects of both protagonists’ affections share a first name. Like Penny, Alderton’s narrator Nina finds herself casting unfair judgment on her friends in light of her own romantic failures. The contrast is that Nina’s journey ends not with romance, but acceptance that her life may not mirror the conventional path. Nina, though, is in her early thirties – what a difference a few years may make.
While Penny concedes by the end of No Hard Feelings that rewards can be found in new beginnings, or simply living in the moment, and not only in fairytale endings, her happiness still comes from external sources: a steady boyfriend, a higher-paying job. 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 signify a satisfying ending.