I knew I had to get my hands on Lisa Owen’s novel Not Working when I saw it described as representative of the Millennial experience at MarinaSofia’s blog. As a Millennial I could not resist the opportunity to check a funny take on what it means to be one of the most self-centered generations in literature (so, yes, this post is very much an exploration of myself as it is a review). Thank you to the lovely people at Picador who kindly sent me a hardback review copy. It is gorgeous.
Not Working tells the story of Claire Flannery who, in her late twenties, decides to quit her job at an office because she was not satisfied with it. The story begins with Claire’s introspections about how her life is supposed to be, how she wants it to be, and how everyone else – more Parents here included – think it should be. Thankfully she has some savings and is engaged and living with a neurosurgeon in training who can emotionally and financially support her decision.
I feel as if every decision I’ve made has cut off possibilities rather than broadened them. What if I’d make an amazing potter but will never know because I never tried it?
If you are young, I am 99% sure you will identify with Claire. We have been brought to think that one day we will be adults, we will know it, and we will behave accordingly. This is life path that Generation X or Baby Boomers established at an economically prosperous time when young people thought of their jobs as jobs, and not as life-defining choices. But we, Millennials, are playing a different game. The economic crisis is making it quite difficult for some of us to find a job that will allow us to fly the nest, and we are not sure we want to get married and have children. Why would we when we feel we have not experienced any kind of freedom at 30? [See, this is a Millennial rant]. Claire does not seem to have this problem, although her preoccupation with finding her passion in life is very much related to her preoccupation to find that adult self that comes right before settling down and enjoying that fixed identity that means being an adult. This feeling has different connotations for men and women, and Owens herself puts it better here than I could ever dream of, because sometimes I also wonder what happened to that adult-self that I always planned on being:
I realize with a vague sense of disenchantment that this phenomenon – femininity – has not manifested itself at all as I expected, in the form of vanity table, crystal perfume, atomizer, kimono suspended from silk-padded hanger, et cetera, but instead as a tangle of greyish underwear, old sports T-shirts for nighties and an unruly Boots-special-offer-dictated assortment of half-finished moisturizer, packets of face wipes and bunches of tampons.
The story is told only from Claire’s point of view – no other option here for a generation who overshares in social media – and is divided into days and vignettes, like Noami accurately described them. I especially enjoyed Claire’s reflection on the tube, as they perfectly reflect the stream of consciousness and all the judgement that comes from using public transportation. I was also moved by her relationship with her mother, as it seems that our generation is finding it a bit difficult to connect with our parents’ due to different values and lifestyles.
However, I wonder whether Owen’s portrayal of a Millennial crisis is too idealised, with Claire living in an apartment in London and enjoying the financial security of a neurosurgeon boyfriend. But, since the book is a light yet profound read for my generation, I will consider that setting a necessity for all the funny and tragic decisions Claire makes, like overspending in wine and paying a hundred pounds for sessions with a personal trainer that she does not want.
In short, Not Working will work for many of us who are still figuring out this thing called ‘adulting’, and who, comparing their lives to their parents’ at their age, wonder if they did something wrong along the road, or whether another lifestyle is emerging that will allow us to be more fluid, and more plastic beings. In any case, Owen’s novel will remind us to toss away all the ideas we have in our minds about how life is supposed to be and feel and just live it and feel it as it comes.