As I mention far too often, I’m currently taking part in a virtual book club. It’s something my friend set up at the start of the first lockdown and one that I joined after a couple of months. I never thought of myself as a book club kind of person but I’m really enjoying discussing the books every week. My major problem is having nothing of interest to say, which mostly happens with books that I don’t really like. When the monthly pick is an underwhelming book, I tend to forget a lot about it before the meeting. Part of the reason that I try and read the book as close to the deadline as possible. Luckily for me, there has only been a couple of duds since I joined. In fact, it’s been a great range of titles that I’m really glad to have had the chance to read. This month, I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of the potential titles, so I didn’t even vote. Considering how it’s turned out, I think I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about taking responsibility for yourself.
It seems as though the trend for maudlin stories about millennial women with mental health issues isn’t going away. The problem with this kind of influx means that we’re suddenly seeing books that feature the same tired tropes. It always seems to be the same. 30-something woman, single, working a dead-end job and feeling alone. The kind of woman who thinks nobody understands what she’s going through and who horribly judges the people around her. In her head, she tears them apart but, as we know, they all just trying to get by as best they can. It’s the kind of premise that really isn’t the most obvious setting for humour but Halle Butler’s The New Me goes to extremes to convince you that it’s darkly funny. The book is covered with jokes letting you know how hilarious it is. How can any book expect to live up to that?
In this millennial narrative, we meet 30-year-old Millie who is recently single and working for a temp agency. Her latest posting is for a design company where she answers the phone and very little else. She’s bored and constantly hounded by the woman who is slightly superior to her. Millie doesn’t bother trying to connect with her coworkers and does as little work as possible. At night, she goes home to her flat, drinks herself into oblivion and laments on her life. She has one constant friend having lost most of her casual acquaintances in the breakup. She and Sarah get together every so often but, unfortunately, Millie doesn’t really like her. She sees Sarah as self-centred and boring. When the possibility of a permanent position comes up at work, Millie is forced to think about her future and vows to change her attitude to life. But can she?
It’s safe to say that pretty much everyone you meet in this book is awful. I mean, there are a few people who are kind of okay but they’re written in such an uninspiring way that it’s hard to tell. I realise that the majority of these people are seen through Millie’s misanthropic eyes and it’s to be expected. It just all gets a bit much. I’m not the kind of person that needs a book to be full of kind and lovely people but I do require a bit of depth or development. It’s not even that the characters aren’t kind. It’s just that they’re also not awful enough to be interesting. They’re just dull and repetitive. There is no attempt to bring anything more to any of these characters. The whole book is meant to be about Millie’s personal journey but she barely changes. Yeah, there’s a slight issue of mental health partway through but we never really address the issue. Instead of trying to have a conversation about the problems facing millennials these days, this novel does as little work as possible. It’s just such an unoriginal take on this very familiar story.
If this was one of a handful of books about a 30-year-old woman regretting her life choices then it might not be as bad. The problem is that it isn’t. It’s one of a long line of very similar books and it just doesn’t do enough to stand out. Even this supposed humour doesn’t help. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it doesn’t exist. Making horrible comments about the way women look, act or think isn’t exactly the height of comedy genius. It’s a bad roast. This is a book that relies on bad and outdated stereotypes about millennials. It just feels lazy and basic. It’s not that mean humour isn’t always fun but it does need something else to balance it out. There is almost nothing positive within this book. Aside from a brief period that Millie spends with her parents, this is just a book full of meanness. It presents female relationships as nothing but toxic. It feels weird. Especially to someone from the generation that grew up with Spice Girls screeching about Girl Power every five minutes. Where is the support network?
It’s disappointing because there is plenty about this novel that feels realistic. There is a lot that rings true and I, like many, will empathise with Millie to some extent. But there is a point where her actions stop making sense. After all, one of the major things that people tend to throw in the face of all millennials is their obsession with mental health. I think it is both an unlikely and a bad decision that Butler didn’t show Millie getting help from a professional or a better friend. There is no real sense of hope in this novel. I’m not suggesting that it needed a fairytale ending but it should have found a more positive way to show growth. Why not show Millie accepting that she needs to talk about her situation? Or have her move home? Instead, Butler just skips a bunch of time. Perhaps she just couldn’t be bothered writing about it?
The New Me isn’t a terrible novel but I spent most of my time wishing it would end. It’s not a book that would appeal to people who prefer a strong narrative but there also isn’t a great deal of character exploration either. I don’t really know what this book is trying to achieve except to say that millennials have it tough. Really, novels like this aren’t doing anything to change the way that other generations see millennials. It doesn’t add anything to the conversation or offer any new insights. It’s a tired and overdone story that has been much better by other writers. Butler is a good writer but her subject matter leaves a lot to be desired. The New Me hasn’t really left me desperate to explore more of her work.