Is there anything more deeply cursed than being a woman in your 20s? Novelists have been mining this period of life for years, but few get it as well as Madeleine Gray, whose debut, in a droll internet-style voice, hits the nail on the head. Reading this book was like being thrust underneath an X-ray machine and seeing all the most repulsive parts of myself; like picking at a scab repeatedly, knowing it will scar but delighting in the sick sensation. Disgusting! More please!
Hera Stephen, the precocious yet ordinary 24-year-old protagonist of Green Dot, lives with her dad and has just landed her first full-time job as an online comment moderator for a newspaper. She communicates in memes and cultural references of both the low- and high-brow kind.
She’s flailing as her friends succeed, so when a slow-burn flirtation begins with Arthur, her “work senior” and also “age senior”, it seems that maybe, finally, this is the thing that will give her life meaning. The reader knows how it will go, of course. Hera does too, but she wants to think she’s smarter than all the other young women who fall into doomed power-skewed affairs with older men. A cycle evolves across time zones and time spans: she is in, she is out again, she is back in.
Such stories, well-trodden as they are, can be obnoxious or boring in less skilled hands. Hera is obnoxious, but purposefully so – Gray’s observations and approximations of Millennial life and language are staggeringly good and wickedly funny.
Between the barbs, snatches of vulnerability peek through, particularly as Hera and Arthur become more intimate and she reveals more of herself, some of which remains at a designated remove for the reader. Despite their ethically compromised actions, there’s a visceral sense of connection; what they seek through one another is the same, despite the difference in circumstances. Both are equally loathsome and pitiable.
“I see the contours of what will become a story that I will tell myself about myself,” Hera thinks. Green Dot is an exercise in delusion and self-construction, illustrating the contradictions of Millennial womanhood. Underneath the wry witticisms lies a profound, desperate ache to be known. It’s a common bind in modern love: how to protect yourself while being open to something more. How to appear like you don’t care when, actually, you couldn’t care more if you tried.
Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen".
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