Australian Women Writers Challenge book review: Holier than Thou by Laura Buzo (some spoilers)

March 18 2013
by emma

As I discussed in my previous post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve completed my first book and review.

 (link to good reads)

At first, this book reminded me very much of the years straight after uni; old rental homes in disrepair, post uni friendships, having too little money, the death of a parent from a debilitating illness and my first live in relationship.  Reading about the character’s journeys to work brought rushing back to me that summer after graduating from university in my first professional job, walking to the PA Hospital from the train station, feeling hot and anxious at the day ahead.

Brief summary and pros:

Easy to read
Urban life
Dealing with loss
The life of a 20 something uni grad in a capital city confronting the realities of a challenging job
Realising the weight of responsibilities not had at university
Feelings of failure, both real and imagined
Idealism of university giving way to cynical, defeated acceptance of how things really are
Not seeing your crew as much, people growing apart after halcyon days of uni where there were endless possibilities and intense closeness with friends
The sudden impact of being confronted with your own mortality while looking after a frail, elderly person; I remember this so well from my early nursing days


However, despite many good reviews, I didn’t really enjoy this novel as much as I’d have liked, apart from a fairly fleeting moment at the start where it felt relatable.  The protagonist was self absorbed and seemingly brimming with confidence – it’s difficult to feel much for a character who doesn’t appear to have any unmanageable problems.

Also, a couple of things stood out to me in a jarring way, an example being a description of Holly’s appearance as a “size 8 body with DD breasts”.  Really?!  There are other, less judgmental ways of describing a person’s appearance – slight, thin, petite, large breasted come to mind, it’s bad enough we continue flogging that dead horse of describing women by their fashion size in the media (and socially, for that matter) but now it’s reached youth oriented literature.  While we’re on that subject, this book is classified in the fairly recent ‘new adult’ genre – is it that necessary to have a different label for novels which focus on such a small demographic?  18-25 year olds are adults after all, who can appreciate any novel and while I understand the unique experience of leaving uni or high school and starting work and life in the real world, there’s not really enough there for a whole new label; clearly a marketing tactic.

It’s not that I can’t appreciate movies/novels about younger people and their life experiences (as I myself have experienced them in the not-t00-distant, ok well maybe a little bit distant, past), even teenagers.  Two fantastic examples with flawed yet likeable characters (and in fact two of my favourite Australian novels), are Looking for Alibrandi and Queen Kat, Carmel & St. Jude Get A Life, however Holier than Thou was difficult to take seriously as there was no real substance or depth and … I just didn’t like the main character.  Yes, she was supposed to be holier than thou and is described that way various times throughout the book, but I really feel there needs to be something relatable, sympathetic and appealing about a character and I wasn’t feeling it with Holly.

I just couldn’t empathise with Holly’s journey.  I think this is one of those novels which would appeal only to that particular youth-oriented demographic; in spite of (or more likely because of) that, I’ll be expecting a movie adaptation down the track.

Book cover: Holier than Thou, Laura Buzo, 2012, Australia 

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