Olive by Emma Gannon

1.5/5 stars

Oof… usually when I would give a book a rating this low, I don’t review it, or often don’t even finish it. But for whatever reason, I decided to stick this one out.

Olive is about, well, Olive, a woman who writes for a popular woman’s magazine and has decided, after a painful breakup, that she is going to live her life child-free. And among her friends, with children of their own, children on the way, or desperately wanting children to be a part of their life, this makes Olive an outcast. The book follows her journey through this decision and assorted dramatic assertions of her child-free life with middling doctors and therapists and strangers alike.

I’m really trying to be nice to this book. Gannon is a capable writer, but she really fails in making Olive anything other than a massive, raging jerk. Seriously, Olive is a jerk from the get-go–to her friends, to her family, to random people who approach her on the street asking about work experience with her magazine. The classic jab against women who decide not to have children is that they’re selfish, but Olive’s characterisation really does little to push back against this misconception–she is quite selfish and self-centered, and even by the end of the story, there’s no real sense she’s developed or gone on any sort of journey.

She speaks disparagingly about other people and especially children, most notably her friends’ children that she spends so much time around. And then the big climatic fight she has with her friends is over the decision to not name her as a godparent. Um. Read the room?

Maybe my perspective on this is a bit skewed, as I’m still in my twenties and haven’t really yet navigated the “seems like everyone’s having babies” phase of adulthood yet. But I can understand and relate to the societal pressures women face at all phases of their lives… and Emma Gannon effectively reduced this all to Sex-and-the-City-esque stock characters and failed to make much of an impact.

I know the child-free movement is getting a lot of attention lately, and I have seen a lot of buzz online about this book giving a voice to women who have made the decision not to have children, and often face hostility and probing questions from friends and family. And I get it, it’s important to see yourself in the media you consume. But Gannon depicts child-free women as almost like an oppressed minority, and it just feels a bit crass, or like she’s mistaking Twitter rants for real discrimination. It doesn’t help that Olive’s story is set in a disconcertingly white London–Olive and all her friends are well-off financially (there’s some throwaway lines about Olive’s friend Bea and her million-pound townhouse, but Olive doesn’t exactly seem poor considering the novel ends with her buying an apartment in Soho), and the book does little to explore the reasons for not wanting to have kids beyond “I want to do stuff without hiring a sitter”. It acts like this is a decision with about as much weight behind it as what to eat for breakfast or what colour your phone case should be.

Although it is written from a US perspective, this Medium article by Vena Moore encapsulates the intersections of being child-free and being a woman of colour that honestly accomplishes more in a few thousand words than Olive did in 400 pages. Next, I think I’ll be tucking into Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, a novel exploring the same topic that, according to reviews, seems to handle this topic in a much deeper and more significant way.

MOTHERHOOD on Amazon:

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