21st Century,  General Fiction

Not Working by Lisa Owens

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 by Lisa Owens

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.



  • susanosborne55

    Lovely review, Elena. I’m from being a Millennial and had shied away from Owens’ novel thanks to the Twitter hype but you’ve made it sound well worth reading.

  • naomifrisby

    Thanks for the link, Elena. I love your take on this. When I got to your line about a fixed adult identity, I was going ‘no no no no no that’s where you’re going wrong!’ and then you nailed it yourself with the last line.

  • MarinaSofia

    Ha, I’m glad you enjoyed it and recognised many of your own concerns in it. Yes, Claire speaks from a privileged position, and I suppose that’s what makes this funny, otherwise there might be more tragedy (and fewer real options) involved.

    • Elena

      Same with TV shows. Remember FRIENDS in the 1990’s? I grew up with that. I grew up thinking that was adulthood despite the huge amounts of money that were hidden behind their lifestyle. But that does not take away from its quality, does it?

  • Elle

    I also think a lot of it is a class difference. Many of us were raised middle class to believe that we could spend money on things like wine and personal trainers, if we wanted to; even, perhaps, that as responsible adults we would and should do those things. The reality of renting well into your thirties and working relatively low-paid, unsatisfying jobs means that we can’t do things like that. We’re having to realign our priorities to run in a less materialistic groove than the generation just before us (which came of age in the ’80s and early ’90s), and it’s causing a huge cultural divide. Meanwhile, the very very poor can’t afford to think about this self-fulfillment shit because they’re struggling to survive on slashed benefits and a national austerity budget, and the very very rich (as always) don’t care or don’t notice.

    • Elena

      It is, Elle. Your comment is to frame, really. My own parents suffer at seeing my lack of income and my lack of opportunities, but it is even harder on us because well… we are eager to start our lives! Thank you very much for your wise words.

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