This first paragraph is just me screaming really loudly and enthusiastically because yessssss another Holly Bourne novel and this one is for adults!! I am an unapologetic fan of everything Bourne writes. Her young adult Spinster Club trilogy is incredible. Now she has a book out about adulting and relationships, and it is just as brilliant.
How Do You Like Me Now? is the story of Tori Bailey, who wrote a bestselling memoir of her twenties but now, in her thirties, is beginning to yearn for the freedom she once thought she had. Beset by baby pics and engagement announcements on social media, feeling pressure to always present her best self to her fans and others online, Tori struggles in her private life with the usual: her long-term relationship is losing its steam; her friends are drifting away as they start having kids (and she is, too obviously, not); her body is changing, showing signs of age; her publishers are clamouring for the next bestseller, and they want it to be all about a type of thirties she isn’t actually experiencing.
A few trigger warnings I picked up on: discussions of weight/eating disorders, sexual assault/non-consensual sex acts, emotional abuse (particularly gaslighting).
As always, Bourne’s writing is eminently quotable, and How Do You Like Me Now? had me taking snapshots of pages with my phone to refer to later—or in this case, to text to my friend Rebecca (whom I’m convinced will one day have a fan following as big as Tori’s but who has, thankfully, already learned so many of the life lessons Tori is still coming to grips with in this book) in anticipation of her borrowing and reading this next. Here’s a very early passage that caught my eye:
Afterwards, I try to take a post-workout selfie in my giant bathroom mirror. But I’m too red and too sweaty and I forget how mad I look without my eyebrows drawn in—like an egg balanced on a pair of shoulders. I reach for my make-up bag and pencil them in. Then I add a tiny bit of mascara, some under-eye concealer and lip tint. I take another photo. Much better. Though it still takes me twenty shots to get the exact combination of laissez-faire, empowered, and naturally-pretty-but-not-like-I-know-it. I brighten the photo up on my phone while my sweat dries and hardens into my clothes. Then I pick a good filter that makes me look even better, but not like I’ve obviously used a filter.
I post it.
Now, I don’t use makeup and I honestly don’t obsess that much over my selfies (nor do I take that many selfies)—yet I can still identify with what Tori’s going through here. We’ve created this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t paradox of social media culture where you’re expected to look beautiful, but naturally so, not filtered or touched-up or made-up (and the pressure, of course, goes double for women and femmes). And it is very easy for people, especially those of us who don’t participate as much or at all in this behaviour, to poo-poo it, to criticize it as shallow or vain, to look down our noses at the people who take these matters much more seriously. But why? When you get right down to it, there is nothing wrong with wanting to post a photo of yourself online. You should be able to do that as much as you like. Yet we’ve turned it into an ordeal, and that is what’s sad, not the photos and posts themselves.
This pattern continues, I found, throughout the book. Obviously mine and Tori’s experiences are very different. Gender and country aside, I also never went travelling on a gap year to “find myself” (though I guess I did move to England, that exotic of exotic locations, for two years). Unlike Tori, I’ve never been in any kind of romantic or sexual relationship, much less a long-term one. And while children might be something I’ve thought about having, my personal relationship with that issue is different since I can’t bear them and, as a man, people treat me very differently—no one is pointing out that my biological clock is ticking, and no one expects me to “want” a baby through some kind of maternal impulses.
So with each new issue Tori faces, I found myself not quite in her shoes, yet still capable of sympathy or empathy, depending on the specific issue. I found a lot of what she experiences identifiable on a generational level, as a fellow millennial. I found myself nodding along, very much exposed to a lot of the same bullshit, even if I don’t endure it or respond to it in quite the same ways as Tori does. This is part and parcel of Bourne’s excellent storytelling: you don’t have to be like Tori Bailey to sympathize with her, to learn from her story, or to take this story to heart. You just have to be open-minded enough to imagine what it’s like, going through what she does. Bourne’s writing does the rest.
Towards the end of the book, there is another fantastic exchange between Tori and another childless attendee of the baby shower she throws for her best friend. The other person says to Tori:
I just can’t help overhearing conversations like this and thinking, “men don’t have these conversations”, and feeling like there’s something weird going on.
This line really sums up why I’m not a fan of most baby showers. It isn’t the fact, so much, that I think the games people tend to play and the conversations they have are inane. It isn’t even how many of the games and conversations reinforce harmful gender norms, roles, and stereotypes. No, it’s ultimately the fact that baby showers often underline the inequity that still exists in our society in terms of expectations on mothers and fathers when it comes to having and raising children. It isn’t enough that we expect women to want to have babies, and then to have babies—we also expect them, baby or babyless, to participate gladly in these social events, to reinforce and discuss how amazing childrearing is, but we have no such expectations for men. If a dude sticks around and maybe does laundry or feeds the kid once in a while, suddenly he’s this huge hero, and there are newspaper articles written about him and how “feminism is unnecessary” because suddenly we’ve got equality. Uh-huh.
How Do You Like Me Now? is witty, incisive, insightful, and always willing to tackle complexities instead of glossing over them. Tori is definitely a strong, thoughtful, driven person. Yet she is also beset with insecurities, just like any of us. Her identity is a raft of conflicting ideas: feminist, yet happy in this long-term heterosexual relationship; independent author, yet her success is wrapped up in a book that is ultimately about how she found her man. These are contradictions that will sound familiar to a lot of women, I’m sure. Because even as Bourne demonstrates how far we’ve come, in terms of gender roles, she reminds us that we have not come nearly far enough, that there is still so much work left to do.
Tom is a wanker.
Oh, you want a little bit more? Tom is a manipulative coward who prefers avoiding conflict over communicating his needs and who thinks it’s OK to press a woman’s head downwards when she’s giving him a blowjob. (NO.) And this is super interesting, because when I first started the book I wondered how Bourne would portray him. Was he going to be a nice guy who had just kind of stopped trying in their relationship, kind of checked out, because the two of them had grown apart? Hella nope; he is a wanker. Or more to the point, one might classify him as a man-child or a woke misogynist, someone who thinks he’s self-aware but actually never bothers to check his privilege, someone who cares only about his needs in the relationship, and when there is any sign of conflict, will either deflect or accuse his partner of being “too emotional” about it.
You don’t need any experience in a relationship to know this behaviour is unacceptable: I have zero experience and I know it’s bad. I shudder even to see it happening to Tori. And I’m not going to go into spoilers, but suffice it to say that How Do You Like Me Now? comes with Bourne’s trademark crisis climax, and Tori is amazing. She changes. She chooses. It’s tough and there are no guarantees … but at 28 years old, I think I’ve already realized that is just the way life is.
I have enjoyed all of Holly Bourne’s YA novels so far, because they are the perfect mix of clever, challenging, didactic fiction that nevertheless has humorous characters and situations that make the books a lot of fun. Bourne is one of the best purveyors of feminism that neither patronizes nor goes over the head of people who are just starting out with these ideas. In her adult debut here, she takes those same skills and turns them into a thoughtful, moving, emotionally-intense novel about the transition into one’s thirties—which, like the transition from adolescence into adulthood, is tumultuous and sometimes traumatic. I laughed, I cried, and I loved it.