Anna meets Max in a hotel bar in central London. They have both just finished work – Max is a banker and Anna, a trainee opera singer, does jazz sets on the side to pay her rent. Anna is 24, Max 38. Max is wealthy and Anna is not. Anna is single and Max has recently separated from his wife. At the end of the evening he gives her his card.
A Very Nice Girl, Imogen Crimp’s debut novel, tracks Anna’s early career and musical studies against their troubled relationship. The roles Anna takes up – Musetta, Zerlina, Rusalka and Manon – are templates for her experiences of passion and power. Her affair with Max is intense but there are clear boundaries: they go for expensive dinners and have sex at his London flat, but she isn’t invited to his home in the country or to meet his friends or family. Max has a sadness that he withholds, and Anna is convinced that he is hiding something. Perhaps he’s still living with his wife or seeing other women. There are children’s films on his Netflix account. She combs his bank statements and searches for his Oxfordshire house on Google Street View.
Between dates, Anna continues to train and to audition, but when she gives up her job, she can’t afford the concealed costs of a career in opera, which her more privileged peers’ parents quietly pay. She moves from lodgings to a shared room, then to a subsidised bedsit. Occasionally, she steals cash from Max’s bedside table. More regularly, he gives her money in unmarked envelopes. She keeps a tally of her debt on her phone. She finds it increasingly difficult to sing.
A Very Nice Girl is an absorbing novel – the unravelling of Anna’s career and the increasing constriction of her relationship are gripping without feeling mechanically plotted. Anna’s struggle to be successful, loved and financially secure is lonely, but Crimp addresses these troubles, as they are specific to Anna’s generation, with a thin-lipped sense of humour. There’s a particular desperation that is shared by the young women in this novel, whose anxieties are aggravated by mutual accusations of bad politics. Anna’s closest girlfriend, Laurie, describes a lifeless night spent with women who only talk about “which aspects of other people’s weddings they wanted to buy for their own weddings and which they’d thought were shit”. “Women are genuinely pathetic, aren’t they?” says Laurie. “It’s literally no wonder men are still in charge of everything.”
Like Raven Leilani’s Luster, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times or Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, A Very Nice Girl focuses on a sexual relationship between a twentysomething woman who is struggling for money and an older, considerably richer white man. There are several threads that recur across these novels. Envelopes full of cash are passed to Edie in Luster. An ambivalent reunion between Anna and Max at Christmas recalls the end of Conversations With Friends. Like Edie, or Marianne in Rooney’s Normal People, Anna has a predilection for masochism. After a humiliating audition, she invites Max to hurt her during sex: “I heard my mouth say to him all these things I wasn’t sure I meant, that I wanted him to do anything to me.”
What’s going on here? Rooney and Leilani are exceptional writers – distinctive and influential – and it’s possible that the fictional worlds they have created, populated by wise young women who like to be hurt, have set a trend. Like many older people (I’m Max’s age), I have a limited attention span for the pixel-by-pixel portrait of one person’s fluctuating self-worth, as when Anna eschews going to work in favour of taking mournful baths. But it seems reasonable to think that similarities in these stories expose something about the lives of young women now, in the same way that the exit strategies of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina (Crimp’s Anna mentions both novels), or one of Ibsen’s heroines, are stories about the constraints placed on 19th-century bourgeois wives.
Anna’s peers and mentors put the burden of success on her shoulders, which has the effect of concealing how disadvantaged she is. This is as much about her background as about her femininity: niceness and girlishness don’t mean much until they come into play with money. Anna’s own experiences, romantic as well as professional, are narrated back to her by friends and teachers as experiences of empowerment, while reality confronts her with her lack of power. In this, it makes sense for her to feel alienated and for self-harm and self-destruction to be the choice she is empowered to make. After Max hits her during sex, she asks him why he did it and he seems genuinely surprised. “What? You wanted me to.” Anna would like to respond but she loses her voice. “I tried to say something else, but I couldn’t.”