Taking a group of female friends and exploring their lives and relationships is a staple of contemporary women's fiction, from Maeve Binchy's Circle of Friends to Patricia Scanlan's much loved City Girls series to captivating recent debuts from the likes of Eithne Shorthall and Dawn O'Porter.
Emma Gannon’s Olive takes the tried and tested formula and breathes new life into it with an examination of four female friends whose paths diverge after a close-knit college experience. The book’s protagonist is the titular Olive, whose first-person narrative focuses on her decision to not have a baby, or to be childfree by choice (CFC).
The subject matter gives the book a timely, urgent feel. Marian Keyes herself, the queen of meaty but relatable reads, has praised Gannon for taking a "profound issue" and packaging it lightly. And lightly is the correct term for the tone of the book, which hops forwards and backwards in time without much finesse but with enough interesting back story to keep the reader happy.
The main story takes place in 2019, as Olive and her friends settle (or refuse to settle) into the lives of women in their early 30s. An editor at a popular online magazine, Olive is good at her job and secure in her position at work, if you discount the regular trips to the bathroom to have a cry. Her nine-year relationship with Jacob has just ended when the pair couldn’t agree about children.
This is a clever choice by Gannon, immediately upping the stakes and crystallising what Olive stands to lose by not having a child. Her best friends – Bea, Cec and Isla (names, along with Olive herself and her sister Zeta, that collectively make you long for a Mary or a Jane) – are unfortunately too preoccupied with their own dilemmas to support Olive through her crisis.
An early scene vividly captures the dynamic: the foursome meet, as they have been doing for years, in a neighbourhood Italian on the last Thursday of the month. Just as Olive is about to tell them her news, they up sticks and cancel dinner. Bea is single parenting her three children while her husband travels for work; Cec, a successful lawyer, is pregnant and exhausted; and Isla, arguably the most sympathetic of the bunch, is crippled with endometriosis pain and depressed about her failed IVF attempts.
The parallels with Dawn O’Porter’s recent novel The Cows are strong, though Olive’s pursuit of a childfree life sets Gannon’s debut apart. Other recent publications dealing with the same issue are Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, an intricate and more intellectual exploration of the subject, and Megham Daum’s collection of essays Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids. The latter is referenced in Olive, as are contemporary touchstones such as the Moth Storytelling Night, and a CFC event in Shoreditch inspired by its format.
At the start of every chapter, Gannon includes quotations from real-life women who have decided not to have children. This adds to the of-the-moment tone of the book, and draws on Gannon's background as a journalist. A Sunday Times columnist, she is the author of the bestselling memoir Ctrl Alt Delete and The Multi-Hyphen Method. Gannon is also the host of Ctrl Alt Delete, a careers-based podcast with more than five million downloads, featuring guests such as Ellen Page, Lena Dunham and Elizabeth Gilbert.
Olive's predicament feels very real and honest. Her sharp sense of humour and smart social commentary quickly
win the reader over
The guilt women feel, whether they have multiple children or none, whether they work in an office or at home, whether they take to new motherhood or find it a struggle, whether they conceive naturally or through IVF or sometimes not at all, is the axis of the novel, and Gannon’s four vibrantly drawn characters all suffer from it in some way.
Sometimes the strains are overdone, as with Olive’s “my time is running out” narrative, which is slightly undermined by the fact that she’s only 32, and has time left to change her mind if she wants to. Elsewhere the repetition of how her friends have let her down can make her, on occasion, appear whiny and self-centred. Ultimately, though, Olive’s predicament feels very real and honest. Her sharp sense of humour and smart social commentary quickly win the reader over.
Amid all the wry remarks and doubts and wondering and self-reflection, it is Olive’s straight-talking friend Cec who sums it up best: “Have you ever questioned that maybe nothing was wrong with you in the first place? That nothing needed fixing? That you are right where you are meant to be? There are so many ways to live a fulfilled life. What you do, the people you impact, it’s all so valuable.”