So after a raft of pretty heavy books with heavy topics, we went for some lighter action this month. Not to say there weren’t a lot of interesting themes in No Hard Feelings but it certainly was less uncomfortable or confronting to read than some of our recent reads.
A debut novel for Melbourne writer Genevieve Novak. The Guardian writes, ‘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.’ And that holds true. The novel attempts to have some diversity, but the problems of Penny, a hot-mess, 26 year old woman (who thinks she has to have it all figured out by her mid-twenties) has what is a very white, middle-class preoccupation, with the need to find a man and become a settled adult. This can lead to some face-palming if you are reading it in your mid-thirties.
As noted in The Guardian too ‘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… If it weren’t so incredibly earnest, much of it could read as parody…’’
Our thoughts are as follows. A great read to take out into the increasing sunlight. As always…potential spoiler alerts! D x
Danielle: It’s another book about Melbourne and kind of upwardly mobile, tertiary educated people, which seems to be a trend for us. But unlike Love & Virtue or Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (which I hated), I feel like this book is trying less hard to be cool, or sophisticated or anything. I felt like I was reading a TV series. The characters have taste, but it’s not trying too hard.
Rosie: This is what the characters are doing, and this is the right place for them to be doing it. Less elitism. More everyday.
Danielle: I thought it had some really great one liners. Such as;
‘It’s pear shaped. And the band is yellow gold. How did she keep from vomiting long enough to say yes?’
‘I can’t believe wine would betray me like this, when all I do is love it.’
She uses humour to hide Penny’s desperation, which felt authentic to the character. Zingers.
The thing that I found interesting was how we actually have the psychologist in the story and the psychologist does a lot of the analysing that you would be doing yourself of the characters. She does it for you. That’s maybe why the book is so enjoyable. You don’t have to think about it – Novak is giving you the answers. And that psychologist comes in quite early in the book.
Rosie: And it’s cool to normalise it right? The twenty-something with normal problems, going to chat to someone about it, when society is not very good at these conversations. There is nothing special about her seeing a psychologist. This is just what you do on a Tuesday afternoon. Why not? Really normal.
Tori: I found the psychologist a bit too forward though. She is the kind of psychologist who really assumes. But I agree, I feel like it was the mind of the actual reader, not the psychologist.
Nancy: It can depend on what stage you are with your psychologist. Penny had come in and she was desperate. She could have come to her and the psychologist was thinking, ‘I need to get her fast-tracked’ in a way. And that could have been why she was giving Penny the answers.
Danielle: The other big theme I took away was toxic bosses.
Tori: And thinking you’re the problem…
Danielle: ‘Lately just thinking if her name makes my stomach twist.’ That anxiety of going to work and dealing with a person read true for me, because I feel like I’ve been there so many times and it’s so harrowing. You can’t perform.
Rosie: It’s like how Penny was talking about knowing everything, then she gets in there and she can’t say anything. We’ve all been there.
Danielle: And you can tell from the start she is not getting that promotion and you can just painfully see it unfold.
Tori: I’ve seen that happen in a workplace before. People were not functioning, dropping left, right and centre. Didn’t want to be there, leaving early, not appearing. That’s what happens when you create that environment. Where the boss is always there like a robot.
Nancy: A real Anna Wintour.
Tori: That level of shaming though is so curious to me. I was talking to my boss today, we had a performance review and we were talking about how the public sector doesn’t do that. You don’t perform with shame. You don’t manage with shame. You just don’t do that and there is so much in that. The boss in the book manages with fear and shame. That whole watch tapping. I’d be so mad if someone did that to me.
Nancy: The only thing I will say about all of this is she is twenty-seven. Too young to have all this shit figured out.
Danielle: Nancy and I did have a text convo about this…It’s like the whole book is about how she hasn’t got her life sorted, and her friends are getting married, but you’re twenty-seven…
Nancy: It’s like her second job out of Uni. You’re still a baby.
Tori: You still haven’t done the first cull of your friends!
Danielle: Shall we talk about characters now? So let’s talk about Max?
Tori: *Motions vomiting*
Nancy: I get the whole first love thing. Like when you are set on one person. She wanted it to work.
Rosie: She put up with a lot of shit from him. I found that really unrelatable.
Tori: I think there was a lot of naïveté in there, but I think that originally she didn’t see him like that and as she gets older eventually she does. You don’t see that shit when you’re younger.
Danielle: I think part of the problem was the relationship with him the first time seemed quite stable. It seemed to be good. But they have broken up and she’s gone back and it wasn’t that same relationship. Would we call it a relationship?
Rosie: But halfway through where she is on his doorstep, that was awful.
Tori: But isn’t it strange how we seek out relationships that just confirm what you think about yourself. That’s really bizarre. I think that you find that so often.
Danielle: Absolutely. She didn’t think she was worthy of love and respect.
Tori: And when you find someone that does the opposite it’s kind of confronting. She runs.
Danielle: Well she doesn’t see it in Leo, does she? She can’t see that he is in love with her and respects her.
My favourite Max line – ‘I was thinking that I’m just better suited to ethical non-monogamy.’ What does that even mean?! If someone said that to me, I’d be like – ‘get out’.
And when her psychologist sums it up ‘But you’re not too needy or too fat or too generally deficient for him to sleep with you regularly.’
Nancy: What I actually didn’t understand about Max was why did he say ‘yes’ when Leo gives Penny the advice and she faces Max with an ultimatum. He accepts it. Why would he do that?
Danielle: Maybe there is a little bit of him that thinks it can work with her. They obviously had a connection at some point. Maybe she was good in bed?
Nancy: And the fact that she didn’t confront him when he went out with his ex. I was like, what are you doing? She was just too scared to lose him.
Tori: What is the point of being good in bed? What, like, pretending to orgasm? Giving a man what they want? Not demanding pleasure? Don’t do that. Don’t fake an orgasm. That is a t-shirt that I want. Let them know that they are shit. They need to know that.
Danielle: Actually, it’s a performance review. Here is your performance review. Zero orgasms.
Tori: Penny just can’t put herself first. Like when her birthday comes around and he just ghosts. The day before, he’s super keen.
Nancy: She’s very insecure. It’s what she is driven by.
Rosie: Why are they portraying an architect – Leo – as having lots of money?
Danielle: Ha, I thought that too, but his family comes from money. He appears a bit uncomfortable with his wealth though.
I have nothing else to say about Max except he is a terrible human. Should we move onto Leo?
From day one, before they are friends, he is just very open and honest. But I think he gets progressively more misunderstood by her as we go along. I like when he says, ‘You think you’re the only one who’s allowed to be hurt by the things people do to you, but you’re a fucking hurricane.’ And that’s true. She is very self-focussed. She does not understand her impact.
Tori: Leo seems to have some of the same relationships as her though, with these women who act like a hot mess.
Nancy: I didn’t pick that he was into her until later on as well. I thought he was chill and had a nice vibe. Until later…I was like hold on a second…
Danielle: I think she is quite scared of the relationship with Leo and that comes out near the end and she says, ‘Leo has heard more than what I say; he’s heard what I mean, the way I feel, and has spat it back to me with such venom that it makes me pull my arms close, as though to protect my heart from hearing it.’ She is very vulnerable. With Max it’s clear that he doesn’t care about her in any real way and that’s protecting her. Whereas this guy actually cares for her and she can’t handle it and freaks out.
Nancy: I did not like how she just upped and left after he declared his love. It’s just mean.
Rosie: She is clearly just up in her head, but I felt so bad.
Nancy: But that’s what she is doing the whole time. She’s always in her head.
Danielle: Anything else to say about Leo? We like him, yeah?
Nancy: He sounds like a good guy. Can you write to the author and ask if he’s based on a real person…? Ha
So…Penny? Just a very insecure, oblivious, human. She doesn’t know how to process things.
Tori: There is a lot of trauma in her life.
Danielle: It’s very much a story about modern dating and she is an interesting vehicle to tell that story through, because she is so insecure and is really not someone who should be dating, right? She should be seeking therapy first.
Nancy: But that’s also the pressure of her two friends, right? Annie is usually in a relationship and Bec is in a long term thing, so she feels that pressure to find someone.
Tori: That abandonment is a real theme. She feels abandoned by her friends. The relationship with both friends is toxic
Danielle: She feels abandoned by her friends, and yet goes back to Max again and again.
Nancy: The other thing that annoys me is how she is ‘poor’ compared to her friends. Just say no. Don’t go out for big lunches or dinners. If you can’t afford it.
Danielle: But also what kind of friends make you go out where you can’t afford?
Nancy: She must feel that pressure to keep up because she feels like that they are all she has got.
Danielle: She is very much that patriarchal type – wants a man, needs a man. That was very…
Danielle: Yes. I mean, sort out your shit first. You don’t need a guy. Sort out your job and what you want to do with your career. Or sort out your friendships. But no one seems to tell her that except the psychologist. None of her friends helps her work through her problems.
Nancy: Annie was ok. Annie was trying.
Tori: I feel like Penny is a bit to blame for the friendships. The relationships are largely superficial. Throughout the book she doesn’t drop any of her friends, even though she progresses mentally.
Nancy: Do you feel like if time went on Bec would be out of the picture?
Tori: I think if she kept up seeing the psychologist, she would get to the point where she realised that the relationship wasn’t the best for her. It was surprising to me that everything was so progressive, and yet she kept those friends.
Nancy: But she was lonely. Think about when you’ve culled friends you’ve had for so many years, right. It’s hard to do because of the habit you have around being their friend.
Tori: Good book.
Danielle: Do we want to rate it?
Rosie: I’d go a 3.5.
Nancy: No, I’m going a 4.2. I really enjoyed it.
Danielle: It’s not like the best literature I’ve ever read, but I’d give it an enjoyable 4. Maybe a 3.9. I got through it really quickly. And I could imagine watching it.
Nancy: You know what it reminded me of? A modern day Looking for Alibrandi. It’s got the same themes of a young woman trying to navigate the world, issues with family, the boy on the scene. Same kind of vibe.
Danielle: By the way the thank you’s were my favourite part of this book. Novak ends with:
‘All the boys I loved in my twenties, who are searching these pages for scar tissue. Thank you for giving me something to write about.
Absolute, revenge on paper.