Book Review: No Hard Feelings, by Genevieve Novak
This book was absolutely addictive.
I read it on the tram, on my lunch break, curled up in my chair ... I would have read it while I walked home if I wasn't so uncoordinated.
There was something about the prose that kept me hooked: maybe it was the internal monologue of Penny that took over her circumstances and had me snorting cereal through my nose with laughter; or maybe it was the way the sentences were structured, each designed to keep you on your toes, wondering how the hell Penny was going to resolve things.
Or maybe (probably), it was the compassion with which Genevieve Novak wrote Penny – through all of her missteps, selfish tendencies and unkind moments, Penny kept moving forward. She vowed to do better.
An annotated picture of No Hard Feelings, by Genevieve Novak, held by Maddy. Photo: Madeleine Corbel, 2022.
An unlikeable, likeable narrator
Novak hit me right in my millennial balls. As Penny came to terms with the disintegration of her friendships, her ambition and her mental health, she learned to navigate general apathy and find sparks of passion in her life.
There's something to be said for unlikeable narrators; here, it damn-well works. There are so many cases where I've tried to read a character that hasn't sat in my head too comfortably – some are completely opposed to any form of improvement, some are too deeply nestled in the 'problematic' basket, and others are way too selfish to even recollect that other characters exist around them. I don't do too well with those books: for whatever reason, they make me incredibly uncomfortable – and often very sad.
But Penny's humour kept me turning the pages, and her resolve got me through to the end. She was set on improving, becoming kinder in general and more passionate about her job, rekindling her love for people and reconnecting with those that she's felt distanced from. It's too easy to fall into this trap of apathy and bitterness, and it was refreshing and heartening to see a young woman like me work hard to find joy again.
One of Novak's greatest skills, I found, is the ability to write realistic characters, and with them, realistic character flaws.
Penny's two friends were real in my mind: one obsessed with her upcoming wedding and the expected perfection that comes with marital pressure; the other, preoccupied with her work as a big-shot Melbourne lawyer and entrepreneur.
Both are kind, clunky, selfish, caring, irascible and maddening. But what was even more frustrating than their treatment of Penny was her treatment of them; when her friends needed support, she used them as a platform for her own hurts and insecurities. When her friends needed her presence, she was away in her head, hanging out with a man who messes with her.
This dichotomy of need and support was – at times – really difficult to read. It hurt to see friendships dissolve. But there were beautiful moments of realisation, learning and growth (as wanky as that sounds), and Novak struck the perfect balance here.
Friendship can be simple, but it can also be incredibly complex. I really feel like Genevieve Novak got this, and presented it to us as an inspiration to do better by the people we love.
The Melbourne landscape
A view of Melbourne from Richmond Station. Image: Owen Pawsey, 2022, on Unsplash.
One of my favourite parts about No Hard Feelings was the setting: as a proud Melburnian, it is so rare that I pick a book from the shelf to find that it's Melbourne-ness is inherent to the tone of the book and the experiences of the characters.
In my editing masterclass, we're discussing how setting can be inextricably linked with character – it can formulate the soul of the protagonist, marking their experiences in an emotional map, and can even become one of the main characters of a book (think Hogwarts in Harry Potter, or Ireland in Sally Rooney's Normal People – classic recommendations).
Tracing the walking routes of the characters to find that the businesses they were frequenting and the streets that were name-dropped are real and visit-able gave me so much pleasure.
As a millennial women who is attempting to stack a Jenga of career choices and relationships, this book appealed to me. It felt as if it were written for me and women like me.
But I think it's worth saying that this doesn't have to be the only way of things. My dad read this before I did; he was emphatic about how much he loved it, and was really passionate about the mental health experiences of the characters. He found it to be a way of understanding the anxiety of my generation – but was also very excited about the Richmond setting, having lived there when he was my age.
My dad is a wonderful reader and an empathetic person, but I truly believe that anyone can enjoy any genre, especially when it's as brilliantly written as Novak's No Hard Feelings.
If you want a read that's immersive, addictive, relatable and hopeful, you can't go better than this one.
As always, thanks for reading with me.