Discovering Lena Dunham’s hit TV series Girls was a light-bulb moment for me. It was as if somebody had taken my disastrous early twenties, transported them to New York City, cast them in a mellow, instagrammed hue, added an achingly-cool soundtrack and committed them to screen. I was elated, I raised my frustrated fists to the sky and shouted ‘yessss!’; finally, somebody was showing what it was actually like to be a twenty-something woman in the 21st century; warts and all. Lena Dunham had a similar revelation when she discovered Helen Gurley-Brown’s (in)famous book, Having It All, in a thrift store, aged twenty. In her new book of essays Not That Kind of Girl she describes how she devoured her teachings (despite admitting that much of it is ‘bananas’ and goes against her deeply-rooted feminist beliefs) because;
‘she shares her own acne-ridden history in an attempt to say ‘Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone…a powerful, confident and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born. Maybe.’
And perhaps this is what I loved so much about Girls and our heroine, Lena’s character Hannah. She’s gutsy yet vulnerable at the same time; she isn’t afraid to chase what she wants, or thinks she wants – heinously inappropriate men, soul-destroying jobs, invitations to drug-addled raves – but also isn’t afraid to admit it when she has made a terrible decision (and make them she does!). She is painfully endearing, so much so that when she hits a low point we want to be in that room dancing to Robyn with her. We want to tell her to slap on some make-up, get dressed up and take her out for a cocktail. We want to be in her gang.
Unlike Lena, I never discovered that one inspirational text in my early twenties (if I had only known about Nora Ephron and Joan Didion back then! What solace!) Instead, I have taken comfort in many a twenty-something fictional heroine. I look to them to offer the advice, forgiveness and compassion I crave, the parallels and reassurance I seek. They are living a life just like mine, but somehow making it look glamorous, aspirational, but most of all, acceptable. Here are my top modern literary lasses:
Emma Morley in One Day by David Nicholls
‘Emma’s mid-twenties had bought a second adolescence even more self-absorbed and doom laden than the first.’
Oh Emma! I have lost track of the times I have wanted to grasp you by the shoulders and shake you – for running after Dexter again; for letting him make you feel like a crashing bore, for moving in with a true crashing bore (Ian), for wearing a conservative one-piece on holiday (despite having the body of Anne Hathaway, obviously) for spending so many years serving Burritos in a nameless, faceless corner of London. When invited out for a drink one night, your response is ‘after my shift here I’m wiped out. I just like to go home, comfort-eat and cry.’ Us too, us too, we scream – we’ve all been there, most of us only last week. Nicholls describes Emma’s mid-twenties as a second adolescence. ‘Oh Emma’, we groan, ‘didn’t anyone warn you about that either? Isn’t it the absolute pits?’ But here is the rub (and part of what makes the book such a joy); she sticks to her guns, she doesn’t sacrifice any of her morals and she lives through it, she prospers. She becomes an author, moves to Paris, dates a jazz musician (albeit briefly) and gets a Sassoon-worthy haircut. And she ends up with the right man… eventually. There is hope for us all.
Bev and Amy in Friendship by Emily Gould
“Existential angst was far, far above her pay grade.”
We meet Bev and Amy while they are living in New York, working in thankless jobs, dating thankless men, living in overpriced yet cramped walk-ups, struggling to partake in the city lifestyle on minimal salaries while trying to ignore the pressures of being a late twenties/early thirties woman. When I discovered this book a feeling of utter relief swept over me; this is a book that needed to be written (and how many books can we say that about and actually mean it?) A novel which reflects the realities of living as a late twenty-something woman in a big city where job opportunities are scarce (and severely oversubscribed) where money (or lack of it) is a daily concern and where people are constantly on the move. Their brutally honest and quirky friendship is illuminating; their numerous mistakes deeply reassuring and their daily struggles sadly accurate – there’s a moment where Bev realises that she may not be able to pay the rent at the end of the week but chooses to treat herself to a $15 salad. There’s another where Amy tots up exactly how much debt she is in (maxed out credit cards, overdrafts etc) but realises she owns a whole cupboard of designer clothes (to which her boyfriend says ‘you never even look that good!). This book is a breath of fresh air; these characters are you and I, perhaps with an added sprinkling of humour.
Ann-Marie in Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
‘Looking into your sarcastic eyes is like looking into the post-feminist whirly-pool itself’
We follow the 23-year old hedonistic anti-heroine Ann-Marie who, having failed her exams and dropped out of university, is on a journey through London seeking extreme experiences which will break the monotony of everyday life. She is unapologetically dirty and extreme – some of her more vulgar acts make for very uncomfortable reading and Ann-Marie’s behaviour towards the unsuspecting, and often unwilling, object of her affection, Vic is not dissimilar to that of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. However, Ann-Marie reveals something startlingly true about the madness of love and desire, the insane jealousies it can inspire and the irrational behaviours that can follow. And in the most extreme and theatrical way, she demonstrates the struggles we all face in trying to establish ourselves. Take her hand and let her lead you, somersaulting like a filthy whirligig through the streets of London.
Mary in Mariana by Monica Dickens
“she was a schoolgirl no longer. She had discovered how to manage her hair, had been to one or two parties and a night club, and laid on lipstick with the idea that each layer was a layer of sophistication.”
Written by ‘Monty’ Dickens (yes, the great-granddaughter if you’re wondering) when she was just 24, this charming yet relatively unknown novel has attracted numerous comparisons to Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle and Nancy Mitford, and deservedly so. In her introduction, Harriet Lane compares our heroine Mary to everyone’s favourite single woman; Bridget Jones. We watch Mary as she grows up in the 1930s, trying out a variety of possible careers while waiting to meet her perfect man; including a hilarious misspent year as an actress, a trying period as a secretary, and a romantic stint as a dressmaker in Paris (complete with bob and divine but rather slimy Frenchman). Mary is assertive, stylish, snobby, frequently insensitive and regularly displays the casual anti-semitism and class based contempt that was common in the period. But don’t let that deter you. She is feisty and outspoken, never prepared to settle for second-best or become baby in the corner. Follow her example; bob your hair and don’t give a fuck.
Madeline in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
“She may have looked normal on the outside, but once you’d seen her handwriting you knew she was deliciously complicated inside.”
Madeline is an English Literature Major, writing her thesis on the various ‘marriage plots’ in literature whilst trying to unravel a real-life marriage plot of her own. Set at an Ivy-league university in the 1980s (frankly, need I say more?) Madeline has to choose between two very different men; the respectable, adoring and spiritual Mitchell and the enigmatic, brooding-genius writer, Leonard. Sounds like the perfect American rom-com, no? Although do not expect sweetness and light; as usual, Eugenides is fixated on getting under the skin of the female experience and themes of complicated young love, and writes so convincingly as a woman that you begin to wonder where he obtains his secret knowledge. Madeline is a beautiful, complex and fiercely intelligent young woman who spends many hours pondering the mysteries of love, both for academic and personal purposes; she will make you want to return to university and write her very thesis.
Words by Alice Saggers, Girl, 20. She blogs at http://girltwenty20.wordpress.com/
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