Sad Girl Novel
In her 2019 New York Times essay, writer Leslie Jamison inventories the life of a “literary sad woman”: doomed love affairs, eating disorders, drunk crying in public, and “tentatively self-destructive behaviours”. The perfectly balanced nihilism and neuroses are the exclusive domain of privileged, beautiful, young white women whom Jamison labels “our repository of rarefied, elegiac sadness”. Whether a lazy stereotype to slap on women’s writing or a clever marketing ploy, the trope begs parody.
In Sad Girl Novel, Melbourne writer Pip Finkemeyer’s debut, we accompany “sad girl” protagonist Kim, an Australian expat living in Berlin, as her life literally goes around in circles, riding the U-Bahn in a loop to the “fintech” job she hates, to unsatisfying sessions with her therapist, Debbie, and back home. Her best friend, Bel, an academic and single mum, is Kim’s biggest cheerleader. That is until Kim has a heady affair while on a work junket in New York with hot-guy literary agent Matthew. Independently wealthy and described by Kim as “more neurotic than me, which was arousing”, Matthew convinces Kim to quit her day job and write full-time on her return to Berlin.
Thus begins Kim’s journey to write a “genre fiction turducken”. She aspires to pen a bestseller that is “authentically me but still wildly successful” – an aspiration that will surely drive a knife into the heart of novelists everywhere. Kim struggles with the effort but persists, egged on by Matthew’s inspo-emails, and the knowledge that “international sad girls everywhere were urgently waiting for me to finish my novel”.
Kim’s fusion of self-indulgence and self-awareness is initially endearing: “was I going crazy or was this just what it felt like when you were making art? Were my neuroses pathetic or the mark of a genius?” Finkemeyer’s tongue-in-cheek pokes at literary life bring the lols in a romp that is reminiscent of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Then the novel shifts gear.
After the inevitable gloomy end to her long-distance fling with Matthew, Kim loses herself on a months-long hedonistic sex and drugs bender, fracturing her friendship with Bel and forcing a reckoning with her life choices. By this point, Finkemeyer’s writing has morphed from humour to earnestness and what started life as a punchy satire has mutated into an actual sad girl novel. By the end, Kim’s self-indulgence has lost all of its charm, turning the protagonist into what Jamison names “our favourite tragic
Ultimo Press, 304pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Sad Girl Novel".
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