Sad girls everywhere know that Rachel Cusk, author of the categories-be-dammed Outline trilogy who proclaimed to The New Yorker last year “I don’t think character exists anymore,” did not come to play, and her most recent book, a collection of essays, is no different. Inside Coventry you will find Cusk’s flinty brain on the likes of Françoise Sagan and Henry James, even on Eat, Pray, Love, and the murkier, profoundly treacherous waters of her own personal life, mostly devastatingly in “Aftermath” on parenting, motherhood, and the breakdown of her marriage. Coventry, as with anything new from Cusk, is the literary-sad-girl status book for fall, sure, but then “sad girl fall” is a state-of-mind transferable to any season.
Sally Rooney’s first book, Conversations with Friends, is a perfect novel. She published it when she was twenty-six. It is the kind of novel that writers like Philip Roth tried and failed to achieve over decades and decades of working. Rooney follows up Conversations with Friends, undoubtedly a sad girl summer novel, with a sad girl fall novel, her second, Normal People. There is a great class divide between Connell and Marianne, our star-crossed lovers: though they attend the same school, Connell’s mom works as a maid in Marianne’s house. Both are ashamed and shamed of their feelings for each other and for themselves. Rooney’s genius for writing sex and dialogue results in an agonizing masterpiece on ambition and intimacy.
There’s nothing quite like a toxic step-parent to gain membership into the club of sad girls. Eudora Welty’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1973 tells the story of the prodigal daughter who returns to care for her ailing father, only to have him die in the hospital and find herself elbow-to-elbow with her bitchy stepmom who (surprise!) is even younger than Laurel herself. Though funerals never deliver on that healing familial balm, in this sad girl’s case, her return to her family manse helps her to regain a sense of confidence, told with an elegiac charm that is Welty’s expertise.
Like Bartleby the Scrivener, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s hotly-anticipated follow-up to her ruthless novel Eileen, would “prefer not to.” Prefer not to what, exactly, is perhaps the question of her nihilistic exercise of sleeping essentially 24/7 with the help of strong pharmaceuticals and a general distaste for the human race. Like the breathless tirades of Thomas Bernhard, Moshfegh’s dedication to alienation and misanthropy leads to serious statements on wealth, youth, and existence, giving us the ultimate (and not her first!) sad girl: an unlikeable female protagonist, a thrilling and rare monster.