The sad girl novel is a relatively new concept in the book world, but it’s one that has fascinated readers since its invention. Hallmarked by novels such as Meg Mason‘s Sorrow and Bliss and often distinguished by cover images of women lying or leaning face-down, this new kind of book takes the classic ‘chick lit’ à la Marian Keyes and disrupts it. Sitting somewhere between the commercial and literary spaces, the sad girl genre seems to be having a moment. But Sad Girl Novel, the debut book from Pip Finkemeyer, is here to disrupt the disrupter.
Following Kim Mueller, an Australian living in Berlin, the story is ostensibly about her efforts to live her best life. But first, she needs to work out what that is. Kim is an aspiring novelist, and like other protagonists in this genre, she is a bit of a mess. Both literally and figuratively – at one point, her best friend and former housemate, Bel, discovers a rotting chicken carcass on her bench that Kim had forgotten to dispose of before going to Frankfurt Book Fair.
Neither Kim nor Bel are particularly likeable characters, but that’s kind of the point. Their friendship, and their found-family style closeness, seems to come from the fact that it’s them against the world. They both accept one another for who they are, no matter how selfish or acerbic the other person may be.
As a protagonist, Kim isn’t easy to love. She is disdainful of everyone around her and painfully self-analytical to the point of narcissism. Not to mention the fact that she’s jealous of Bel’s relationship with her new baby. And unlike other books of this type, she’s not really that funny to follow. At times, her brattiness is nearly impossible to stomach.
When the American agent Kim has been having an email relationship with sends Kim tickets to the Frankfurt Book Fair, Kim uproots herself in the hopes of seeing him. For someone who wants to write a novel (and is supposedly experimenting with different genres and styles), she’s supremely uninterested in networking or meeting other writers and instead spends much of her time waiting to run into Matthew and ignoring the friend of Bel’s that she is set up with. On returning from the fair, Kim is forced to confront reality.
The novel itself is a critique of this emerging (or perhaps fully emerged) genre, but at its heart it’s also a story about two women and their friendship. At times, the two aims seem to be in competition. Characters other than Kim feel at a distance from the reader, or even caricatured, such as Deb the counsellor, who always felt like she thought she was too cool to actually help Kim, and was oddly judgemental of her client’s worries. Perhaps this was just Kim projecting her insecurities outwards. She sees what she wants to see and is always trying to get some form of external validation from those around her. It’s Kim’s world and the rest of them just live in it. Only Matthew – ironically, because he never actually appears on the page other than in email or flashback – seems to exist fully formed.
Kim is a walking, talking flaunting of the Bechdel Test. Everything she does is motivated by getting attention from this man, and trying to recreate a connection she seemed to form with him. The section in the middle of the novel, which explores the beginning of Kim’s fascination with Matthew, has the most energy of the whole book. The addition of an anxious dog whose medication makes her incontinent is a nice touch. It’s easy to like a character who dotes on his neurotic dog, even if he can’t extend the same care and commitment to humans.
Finkemeyer’s writing is assured and the buzz around this novel is no joke – the rave reviews are everywhere. Sadly for me, the novel didn’t quite hit the way I was expecting it to. Also I just couldn’t get over the brattiness of the main character or the casual bizarreness of the plot. It was readable, and it had moments of being extremely clever, but for the most part, this novel went over my head.
Read it if you’re a hardcore Rooney or Moshfegh fan or if you loved Love and Virtue by Diana Reid.