Paralyzed by Choice: The Millennials of Living the Dream

By Alexis Shanley

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‘Living the Dream’ by Lauren Berry

I have to admit: I wasn’t planning on writing about Living the Dream when I was originally scheduling my review coverage. The book I had initially chosen to talk about this month was a darker, more “literary” pick, but with the news covering natural disasters and violent protests, I needed to immerse myself in something lighter. Instead, I chose Lauren Berry’s debut novel, and I’m so glad I did. It was such a pleasure to get lost in the lives of twenty-something Londoners as they made messes out of their careers, romantic relationships, and friendships (and tried their damnedest to clean them up.

The book is a delightful romantic comedy romp, where the central romance is one of female friendship. Emma works in marketing at a job she loathes but puts her creative talents to use writing a blog in her spare time. Though everyone who reads her work praises her writing, she’s trepidatious to pursue it in any real way out of fear that monetizing it will sully her enjoyment of the art. Her best friend, Clementine, on the other hand, is taking a chance on herself and trying to make it as a screenwriter. They’re in very different positions: Emma has a more traditional, stable career that she can rely on, whereas Clem works at a bar to get by while her scripts are under consideration.

At one point in the novel, Clem becomes frustrated with Emma’s cautious approach to her life—her resistance to dedicate herself to her art. After all, if millennials are defined by delayed adulthood, then one’s twenties are a vulnerable time of life because there’s the general sense that the freedom of the life you know is shuttering its doors to you. It may be your last chance to take a risk on something impractical, and you can either seize that moment or let it slip away.

This book made me think of an interview I saw with the director Sam Mendes on Charlie Rose years and years ago. He was being interviewed for the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road, and he described life as having a diamond shape: when you’re a young person with a certain amount of privilege, you start at a point where the world is open to you. All you see are widening opportunities in both directions. Eventually, though, you hit a point where you have to make decisions that define who you are, and the diamond begins to close in. You have to decide who you’ll be—what you’ll do for a living, where to build your life, whether or not you’ll have a partner and who that may be, and whether or not you’ll have a family.

From the vantage point of someone in their twenties, it’s easy to trust in the illusion that people over thirty have made these decisions about themselves and that those decisions are permanent; that they won’t find new careers at a certain age, or have the capacity to undo their bad habits; and that by that time, those things have become who they are (rather than things they do). It’s easy to dismiss millennials as a lazy generation that doesn’t want to grow up, but maybe what distinguishes them most from past generations is their sensitivity to the friction created by the closing in of that diamond.

Though the women in Living the Dream are floundering through their twenties, they find mentor figures in stable older women. For me, these female friendships are what elevate this book beyond a run of the mill summer read. Both Emma and Clem are somewhat myopic in their quest to find themselves, but through work they each meet women who embody a confidence and generosity that the girls lack. Emma’s confidant comes in the form of Hilary, a funny, self-assured woman who gets hired at the marketing company, and Clem gets taken under the wing of a talent agent who wants to foster her burgeoning talent. This give and take between women is depicted in a very realistic, unsentimental way. In fact, Berry’s depiction of all the female friendships are nuanced yet familiar and true to life. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read a book that took such care in its portrayal of complicated female characters.

Lauren Berry has written a witty and profoundly relatable book about that time in your life when your friends are your family and every decision you make feels like it may be the wrong one. Reading this book was like catching up with old friends over a glass of wine, which is to say it was an absolute pleasure.

Alexis Shanley