Brooklyn Girls by Gemma Burgess
Published: July 2, 2013, St. Martin's Press
Genre: Adult Contemporary
Source: eARC from publisher via Netgalley
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Maybe we just have to figure out what we want our lives to be, and how we're going to do it. And we need to help one another. We're all in this together—this house, this period of life, this strange predicament of being adult and not knowing what the hell that means.
I picked up Brooklyn Girls on a whim. I saw it mentioned in a few peoples' Waiting on Wednesdays one week, noticed that it was available through Netgalley, and just decided to request a copy. As much as I adore reading YA books, sometimes it's nice to read about characters slightly older than teens, characters that I can actually relate to in my life right now. I knew Brooklyn Girls was about a group of recent college grads living in Brooklyn and trying to figure out what they want from their lives. And hey — I can totally relate to the scary revelation that adulthood isn't quite like the idealized version promoted in college. Even after attending school for most of your life, it can be hard to decide, "okay, now this is what I want to do until I retire." While I generally prefer to read books that offer more escapism than this, I can't deny I was attracted to the idea of reading about characters who are going through similar situations to me right now.
Pia has recently graduated from Brown University with a Bachelor's degree in Art History and absolutely no real work experience. Through her parents' connections she's able to snag a job at a PR firm in New York City, and she rents an apartment in Brooklyn with four other girls. Angie is Pia's best friend pre-college, Julia and Madeleine attended college with Pia, and Coco is Julia's younger sister. With the exception of Coco, all of the girls are embarking on their first "real world" jobs with varying degrees of success.
After partying a little too hard at their housewarming party, Pia finds herself fired from her job. After one week. Her bad behavior in the past has caused her to get kicked out of two boarding schools, among other things, and Pia's parents have very little faith in their daughter's ability to live as an adult, so they offer her an ultimatum: if she's not gainfully employed within the next two months, then her parents will take her back to Zurich with them and find a job for her there. Pia doesn't want to leave her friends (not to mention live with her parents, with whom she doesn't get along well), and she eventually comes to the decision to start her own company: a food truck that serves low-fat, high-protein meals. As she and her friends come to realize through work, friendships, and relationships, however, nothing in the adult world is simple and everything comes with a cost.
Before I begin discussing the book itself, I need to mention the cover here. Cute and girly, right? There's a definite audience that the book is trying to target. But after reading the book I honestly have no idea who those cover models are supposed to be. The protagonist of Brooklyn Girls, Pia, is half-Swiss and half-Indian. She describes herself as having dark skin and green eyes, and is subjected to racist names like "Bollywood" and remarks on how people constantly ask her "where she's from." So clearly Pia our protagonist is not featured on the cover. Am I to think that those two girls are two of Pia's friends and roommates? Perhaps, but that doesn't make sense given that this is firmly Pia's story. Whitewashing a cover is not okay. I think the target audience could have been reached even by using a person of color for one of the cover models.
Where Brooklyn Girls really excels is in its depiction of the fear and uncertainty that accompany post-graduate life. None of the girls has any idea what she wants to do, not truly. Even Julia, who has worked so hard to get in the banking industry, is starting to realize that she really doesn't know whether she wants to spend the rest of her life working long hours with little reward. Post-graduation is a tricky time, and the girls are struggling to strike a balance among friendships, relationships, work, and hobbies. It's definitely a struggle that I can relate to, which I appreciated.
Another wonderful aspect of this novel was how much the focus is on female friendships. Sure, the girls go out in the attempt of finding a guy, sleep around, and discuss romance, but at the end of the day Pia, Julia, Coco, Madeleine, and Angie all return home to their apartment to be with each other. As Pia thinks at one point, they've become like a family. Misunderstanding and prejudices aside, it's clear they really do care for another, and it's a refreshing message to read.
I found it much easier to relate to Julia and Madeleine, the overachievers and driven girls of the group, so it was an interesting experience to read a story told from Pia's perspective. Pia, the party girl who is confident in all things interpersonal but is a mess internally. Years of parental indifference/disappointment, as well as a particularly painful breakup, have contributed to Pia's vices and constant belittling of herself. On one hand, it is hard not to feel a sense of sympathy for Pia. The pretty, rich girl isn't nearly as composed as she likes to appear. On the other hand, it was incredibly stressful being inside of Pia's head. Pia has no work ethics and her impulsive nature causes her to get in trouble again and again.
Since no employers or employment agencies are willing to give Pia a chance, she does take initiative and purchase a food truck, and noting the lack of healthy to-go lunch options for New Yorkers, creates the company SkinnyWheels. I think that Burgess wants her readers to be on board with Pia's decision, but most of the time I just found myself wincing. She's just so naive and it was painful to read about many of the blunders she makes as she tries to start her own business; funny, but painful. Think of Becky Bloomwood's impulsive nature from the Shopaholic series and multiply it by ten and you can understand what I mean. For every step forward, Pia takes three backwards. She finds herself bound in an agreement with a loan shark. She earns a good profit one week and then blows it all on gifts and alcohol. I get that this story is about her personal growth (which does gradually occur), but Pia is just so unlike me in every way imaginable that I couldn't help judging many of her (poor) decisions.
What I expected from this novel was a combination between a work of chick lit and a deeper contemporary work. While the novel definitely does deliver those aspects, I still finished the book feeling not quite satisfied. I think a large part of my dissatisfaction stems from the fact that not only did I have difficulties relating to Pia, but many of her decisions made me downright uncomfortable. Still, there are plenty of light and fluffy aspects to balance out the story. I loved Pia's determination and drive when it came to SkinnyWheels, and found it to be a quick read. My understanding is that this will be part of a series, with each installment focusing on another roommate. I'm somewhat intrigued but will wait to learn more about the next book before deciding whether to continue with this story.
Rating: 2 stars
Disclaimers: I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the finished copy.