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THE NEW ME by Halle Butler

A few years ago, I read a dark novel called Jillian by Halle Butler about two women working in the same office whose hatred for each other simmers just below the surface, making for a depressing but also bitingly funny read. Butler’s new novel, The New Me, has a slightly different setup, but it’s as dark as, and perhaps deeper than, its predecessor.

The New Me is about Millie, a thirty year-old living in Chicago who has a temp job at a home design showroom. Her job is basically unnecessary – she answers intermittent phone calls and puts folder together for potential clients – leaving Millie with a lot of time to surf the Internet and feel bad about herself. She’s a few years out from a breakup, and with the exception of one self-absorbed friend, she spends all her time alone. She doesn’t have any money, but she fantasizes about the ways she will improve – get a job, go to yoga, upgrade her wardrobe, do her dishes, make new friends – once she lands a job. Meanwhile, she fritters away the hours at the temp job, unwittingly torpedoing any chance she has of getting a permanent offer.

While there is a lot of biting humor here, The New Me is really a sad commentary about isolation and loneliness in lives lived online and in hermetically sealed apartments with streaming Netflix. Millie is actually smart and cultured (we see glimpses to her childhood when she was a precocious reader and listened to The Rite Of Spring as a toddler). She has been beaten down by her own anxiety, depression and lack of motivation, condemning her to living hand-to-mouth as a thirty year-old who is dependent on her parents to buy her new clothes and get her a haircut when she goes to visit them as a last resort.

Halle Butler may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed The New Me and laughed through my cringing (cringed through my laughing?) many times. I found this interview in The Paris Review to be pretty helpful in understanding Butler and where she’s coming from. If you want a mostly depressing but also biting and incisive look at millennials and the modern workplace, give The New Me a try.

I listened to The New Me on audio. It’s narrated by Butler, the author, and while she’s not the best performer (her voice is kind of monotonous, and this felt more like a book reading than a professional audiobook), her style actually worked really well with the book. Millie is disaffected, which was conveyed pretty well by Butler’s almost blase narration. So for this reason, the audio worked pretty well.

JILLIAN by Halle Butler

Jillian is a strange, dark little book about two unhappy women and their parallel unravelings. Megan is in her mid 20s and works as an admin in a gastroenterologist’s office scheduling appointments and reviewing colonoscopy films. Her co-worker, Jillian, is a single mom in her 30s with toddler. Megan is depressed and moody, and she is judgmental of everyone around her, especially people who are more pulled together than she is. Jillian, on the other hand, wears an upbeat mask to hide her inner desperation. She is in desperate financial straits, and when her car is possessed because her license is expired, she finds herself even deeper in a hole. Nevertheless, she adopts a dog – probably the worst decision she could make given the situation she’s in.

Megan’s coldness and lack of enthusiasm are beyond frustrating to Jillian, who shares everything with Megan, hoping to get some sort of affirmation. Meanwhile, Megan is fixated on Jillian and how ridiculous she is. Megan dulls her pain on the weekends with beer and weed, while Jillian fabricates a car accident, obtains prescription painkillers for her phantom back pain, and takes them to escape the reality of her life.

Not much happens in Jillian. Megan goes to parties on the weekend with her boyfriend, gets drunk, and one by one alienates their group of friends with her bitterness and criticism. While high, Jillian alienates the one person who was helping her – a friend from church who drives her son to daycare when Jillian can’t – thus cutting off her one lifeline. In the end, there is no redemption for either woman, nor does either of them gain a greater understanding of or appreciation for the other.

But Jillian is still a worthwhile read. It’s definitely mean, but it’s a funny, dark meanness that most of us can probably, sadly, relate to. Kirkus Reviews says that Jillian has “a degree of compelling, train-wreck allure” and that “[i]t offers up its characters for hatred and ridicule with such energy, obsessive detail and hopelessness that the reader can’t help but read on”. Yes, totally. You’re not going to feel great after reading Jillian, but you’ll laugh and be horrified and will want to tell your best friend all about it.

You have to be in the right mood to read Jillian. If it doesn’t sound appealing after reading this review, maybe save it for later.