Living the Dream is Lauren Berry’s debut novel about two best friends, Emma and Clem, navigating adulthood and pursuing their art.
Disclaimer: Virago gave me an advance copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review.
Emma works a soul-sucking corporate job to pay the bills. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, she saves her real creative energy for writing short, humorous pieces for her blog – a well-followed and well-loved but non-lucrative venture.
Clem finishes grad school at Columbia University in New York City and returns to London in debt and jobless. She sends her thesis script to various agents in hopes that someone will pick it up, but until then, she’s stuck bartending, living at home, and borrowing money from family and friends.
As these women near the end of their twenties, they must ask themselves how they define success and whether they’re willing to sacrifice financial security in order to pursue their true goals.
One – Emma and Clem aren’t perfect, but they can still read as Mary Sues. TV Tropes defines a Mary Sue as a character who “serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of wish fulfilment. She’s exotically beautiful…has a similarly cool and exotic name, [and is] exceptionally talented.” Both women are clever, conventionally attractive, sexually empowered, and very good at what they do. Sure, Emma hates her job and Clementine is struggling financially, but they also have (collectively) a hot, verging-on-famous musician as a friend, a hot, famous actor as an ex-boyfriend, a degree from one of the best schools in America, and lots of people who appreciate their work. Still seems fairly aspirational to me.
This might not have bothered me, if not for…
Two – the disdain with which Emma and Clem sometimes address people, particularly those in conventional jobs. Not everyone has the luxury of following their dreams like Emma and Clem do. Not everyone seeks fulfilment in the workplace. And finally, not everyone can hack it.
It comes down to this – when a book presents a fun, charmed world, I want compelling characters I can root for completely despite their imperfections. Emma and Clem’s occasional snobbishness diminished them in the context of this novel. I wanted either a harsher world or kinder characters. On the other hand, some likes:
One – Berry’s inclusion of some serious social issues. Ageing, disability, and loneliness. Abortion. Sexual harassment. If anything, I might have liked to see those plot points further developed. (This is where my mom’s voice pops into my head, saying, ‘Carly, no one wants to read about sad people.’… But happiness is boring.) Two – the relationships. Emma and Clem are great old friends. They’re loyal, affectionate, and proud of one another. Crucially, though, they aren’t without tension; they argue about the right path forward; they are jealous.
Their friendships with Paul, Emma’s housemate, Yasmin, Clem’s childhood best friend, and Adam, Yasmin’s fiance, were also well-handled. Each could have slipped into trope-y territory, but instead, Berry used them as an opportunity to remind her protagonists (and her audience) that those you write off as one kind of person will surprise you.
Three – the fun, snappy dialogue. I wish I was as confident and quick-witted as those women.
Overall, Living the Dream was a fun read, if not completely to my taste. If you like the sound of a romp through London with two smart and sassy women and a host of other memorable characters, you should check it out!
3/5 stars. (What does this mean?)
Publication: 2017, Virago
This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads and LibraryThing.