Halle Butler’s cynical protagonist spends a lot of time Googling ways to improve her life. She spends money she doesn’t have on new clothes, yoga studio memberships, and home décor, secure in the knowledge that someday things will be better – maybe right after she gets that promotion she’s anticipating. But her preoccupation with the future distracts her considerably from the tasks she needs to complete in the present, and every day that coveted promotion - and the superior life that comes with it - drifts a little further out of reach.
Thirty-year-old Millie can’t get it together. She’s been bounced around between jobs by her temp agency and a bad breakup has left her socially isolated. Her only regular relationship is with Sarah, with whom Millie has a mutually passive-aggressive friendship. When Millie realizes one of her temp jobs has the potential to become “perm” she becomes obsessed with the life she’ll have as soon as she’s hired. But as she begins manically planning for her so-called new life, her performance at work begins to slip, leaving her future uncertain.
The New Me is an uncomfortable book, both because Millie is so uneasy with her own existence and because she is so undeniably relatable. Her discomfort – with her body, with her financial status, with her relationships, with her abilities – is palpable in Butler’s writing. Millie hates her temping jobs, but clings to them because they are the only structure in an otherwise empty life. She despises her coworkers, considering them vapid drones whose constant chatter about smoothies and exercise and fashion is ridiculous, but longs to be included in their dynamic. She craves stability but exerts little effort in creating it.
Butler’s choice to explore Millie’s psychology in an office setting is fitting. After all, workplace dynamics are some of the most complex, requiring not only the deft deployment of social skill, but also an exhausting combination of self-assurance and deference. Millie’s dream of being a permanent staff member is at odds with her deep loathing of the workplace itself, the boring tasks she’s assigned, and the irritating people around her.
Millie, though quite negative and out of tune with the feelings of those around her, isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator. The New Me is told in large part from Millie’s perspective, but Butler also offers readers glimpses of what Millie’s coworkers and acquaintances think of her. With the exception of one superior at work, most people don’t really notice her all that much, her presence just background noise in the drama of their lives. This reality sits in stark contrast to how Millie thinks of herself and her presence in the office.
The New Me is in a lot of ways about perception. Millie’s perception of herself as a person of great importance who, for reasons out of her own control, has hit a rough patch in life. Her friends’ perception of her as a negative, bitchy slob who has orchestrated her own downfall. In one rather hilarious passage of the short novel, Millie, after a night of heavy drinking and snarky conversation with Sarah, heads out for a walk around a local park. Although she thinks she’s presenting herself appropriately in public and getting exercise, she is approached by a woman who asks why she’s stumbling about in sweatpants reeking of alcohol. It’s one of the more telling moments in the story, showing just how far Millie has slipped from the reality of her life.
Fans of Ottessa Moshfegh’s apathetic narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ling Ma’s routine-oriented apocalypse-surviving protagonist in Severance, and Lauren Groff’s disillusioned mother character in Florida will feel right at home when they open The New Me. It’s darkly funny and highly entertaining, and Butler puts in writing many of the negative, bleak thoughts we all have during the workday. Millie is a wonderfully created character, and one with whom many readers with sympathize and also be slightly disgusted by. She has a sharp mind and whip-fast wit, and her musings on the world and its inhabitants are at once hilarious and perfectly accurate. As she lists the things the should do to improve her life (read a book, make some friends, volunteer, buy a plant, take herself both more and less seriously) readers will find themselves thinking about all of the things they’ve promised themselves they’d do but never followed through on.
My recommendation: add this book to your summer reading list as soon as possible.