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6 March 2014

Privilege and post-feminism: Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger

Like the US TV series Girls – but for people who went to Cambridge.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

Eat My Heart Out
Zoe Pilger
Serpent’s Tail, 304pp, £11.99

Ann-Marie is in a state. Not only has the 23-year-old protagonist of Zoe Pilger’s fearsome debut novel, Eat My Heart Out, had her heart broken by her first love, but she has dropped out of university, having failed her exams, and is now living in a fetid Clapham flatshare with an in-the-closet public-school-boy-turned-artist called Freddie. And she is completely skint. The situation is a mess, and being adopted (or, perhaps more accurately, kidnapped) by the legendary feminist Stephanie Haight fails to help matters. Haight is convinced that if she can teach Ann-Marie, a post-feminist, the true nature of female oppression, she can transform her into the voice of her generation; but all Ann-Marie seems to want to do is eat offal, read Nietzsche and fall in love.

Indeed, in this perfectly pitched satire of intergenerational conflict, Ann-Marie’s belief that romantic love is the answer to all her problems seems to be the biggest disconnect, both in terms of the era of feminists that came before her and her own sex life (in one scene, she lets an old man she met at the restaurant where she works as the “door bitch” go down on her in a hotel room, then is sick in a bin outside).

I did not enjoy this book at first, despite belonging to the same, post-feminist, “f**k it” age group. The blurb describes Pilger (the daughter of the film-maker and NS contributor John) as being “like a foul-mouthed Nancy Mitford for the Gawker generation”; I would describe it as being more like the cult American TV series Girls, but for people who went to Cambridge. I didn’t go to Cambridge and I don’t roll with the privileged crowd this novel satirises, so I struggled at times to work out what Pilger was getting at.

There are lines that made me howl with laughter and recognition, though. “Freddie says you love Beyoncé because you went to a black school and that is sick,” the odious public-school runaway Samuel says to Ann-Marie at one point. As the novel progresses, we learn that Ann-Marie is more of an outsider than she lets on. Later, another character describes the all-female college she attended at Cambridge as “a shocking place, full of sexless pain. Full of the impotence of eunuchs.” Such disgust is palpable throughout.

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Some reviews of Eat My Heart Out have pointed out how the book lacks likeable characters, and again in this sense it resembles Girls. Depictions of post-adolescent, warts-and-all, drunken femininity seem to be in vogue; the forthcoming novel
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth has been described by Caitlin Moran as “like Withnail and I but with girls”. Yet Eat My Heart Out differs from other works of the moment in that there is no real engagement with the dynamics of female friendship. (“Where are her girls?” I kept wondering about Ann-Marie.) Nearly all the women in this book are cruel and unstable, and the only one who could have been described as a friend smears Ann-Marie’s bedroom walls with human excrement.

In the end, I read Eat My Heart Out as a tongue-in-cheek dystopian vision of what happens when you become so overly engaged with pop-cultural visions of mass femininity – so obsessed with what men want and how to give it to them – that you forget there are living, breathing women out there who might have your best interests at heart. They might even be willing to take you out for a drink, if only you would let them.