Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends

I’ve read a recent string of psychological thrillers that seem to be subconsciously angry at ambitious women. Even as some of these Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels highlight how women suffer from wanting things outside the traditional female domain of marriage and a family, they also portray female characters who try to achieve success as tortured and unhappy. If you’re not killed off along the way, often the only route to satisfaction as a woman in this kind of book is to abandon the career you worked so hard for, or, at the very least, to scale it back. It’s hard not to feel that readers are being told, over. and over again, that women should just stop wanting things.

Some of this stems from the demands of the genre. Women with various types of mental illness have become a staple of the form, as have people who are willing to kill for what they want. Some of these novels, to be fair, are also keen to highlight genuinely damaging and abusive practices within particular industries, often through a feminist lens. This is the case with Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s The Ballerinas, Ilaria Bernardini’s The Girls Are Good, and, to a lesser extent, Laura Vaughan’s Let’s Pretend, which focus respectively on classical ballet, gymnastics and acting. (I have not read this novel, but I suspect Megan Abbott’s The Turnout is in the same vein). Books like this highlight obsession with body image, sexual abuse, and psychological pressure, all vital issues to discuss. But yet, the cumulative impact of such books being all we ever get about women who pursue artistic or sporting careers is grim. Where are the women who experience at least some happiness in their successes, even for a moment?

Another subset of psychological thrillers take a darker turn, actively appearing to punish women who aim for the top. Let’s Pretend fits in here as well. It focuses on actor Lily, who made her name as ‘Little Lucie’ in a saccharine Christmas film as a child star, but whose career has never really taken off since. In contrast, Adam, once a fellow student at drama school, is on the brink of breaking into the A list. When Adam suggests that Lily pretend to be his girlfriend so he can hide his homosexuality and she can raise her profile, Lily is happy to agree. But things become toxic between them as Lily realises the extent of Adam’s drug habit, and becomes worried he’ll drag her down with him. Every character in this novel, including Lily herself, is shallow, catty and unhappy, and while this applies to men as well as women in this case, it’s depressing that Vaughan could provide no positive counter-examples to set against Lily’s inevitable downfall.

Even worse, arguably, are Harriet Tyce’s It Ends at Midnight and Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which I read back to back and was struck by the similarities between what, on the surface, are two quite different novels. [Spoilers for both of these novels follow.It Ends at Midnight focuses on high-flying lawyer Sylvie, whose ultimate goal is to become a judge. However, her life is derailed when she is framed for something she didn’t do, and she becomes obsessed with old friend Tess, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Both women share a secret in their past, but when Tess threatens to come clean so she can die with a clear conscience, Sylvie is terrified that her life will be ruined. As it turns out, although we are initially led to believe that Tess is lying about almost everything, Sylvie is the one who was principally culpable in their teenage actions, and Tess is actually the collateral damage.

A similar bait-and-switch plays out in Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which stars an influencer, Samantha, who has built her career on being a role model to teenage girls. After speaking openly about her own sexual assault and imploring the public to ‘believe women’, she is devastated to be accused of a similar crime by her teenage best friend, Lisa. The novel is structured in such a way to make it seem that the reader is supposed to gradually realise that Sam is in the wrong about everything, but for me – given the usual stereotypes about influencers and Instagram big names in fiction – this was obvious from the start. I hoped for a while that O’Neill might be aiming for a more complex portrayal of Sam, acknowledging that she has been both abuser and abused, but this unravels near the end.

Both O’Neill and Tyce are then determined to totally destroy their errant protagonists. Idol ends with Sam’s career being completely crushed after a shocking video is leaked on social media. Of course, given what Sam has done, she ‘deserves’ this, but O’Neill constructed her and her story; she didn’t need to make Sam so irredeemably villainous. Meanwhile, Sylvie meets a fate that seems out of proportion to her actions, and indeed almost gleefully cruel; she is impaled on a set of railings after falling from a rooftop and bleeds to death. Women, that’s what comes of reaching too high. [Spoilers end.]

I have honestly started to wonder whether there are any thrillers at all where achieving success in her chosen career is the end-game for a female protagonist – and not success as a side-order to realising what’s really important in life, but success as something that’s worthwhile in its own right. (Ironically, so-called ‘bonkbusters’ like Rebecca Chance’s novels, packaged as much trashier and less worthy than psychological thrillers, are much better at this – her protagonists tend to be brilliantly successful in whatever they set out to do, even if they engage in some dodgy machinations (in more ways than one) along the way.) Why are so many thrillers still telling us that Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends? And can we accept that, while it is important for feminists to highlight the abuse and exploitation of women, it is also important to write feminist depictions of women’s joy, talent and achievement?

I received free proof copies of Let’s Pretend (7th April), It Ends at Midnight (14th April), Idol (12th May) and The Girls Are Good (4th August) from the publishers for review. 

Have you read any Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels? What did you think?

Are there any thrillers you would recommend that celebrate female ambition? (Or indeed any books at all set in the artistic or sporting worlds)?

18 thoughts on “Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends

  1. I got to the end of this excellent piece and realised I couldn’t think of any thrillers that showed a woman’s ambition or career in a good light. That’s pretty shocking. I was thinking about reading the O’Neill, but I think I’ll give it a miss. Sounds very similar to People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd.

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    • Oh no, I was planning to read People Like Her! I’ll go in prepared 🙂 It’s a shame about O’Neill as I really liked her previous books Only Ever Yours and Asking For It – I had hopes she’d write a more feminist take on this premise, but it wasn’t to be.

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  2. This is such an interesting and important topic! It’s not quite the same thing, but relatedly, I have found it increasingly difficult to give any credence to thrillers that use mental illness as a plot point–particularly, though not exclusively, psychopathy, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The stigma surrounding these conditions is still so strong, and even authors trying to “rehabilitate” them can stumble. Ambitious-women-meet-bad-ends is a nasty little trope (particularly horrified by the grand guignol of impalement, for fuck’s sake, does that ever happen?!) I was thinking of writing a ballet novel for a while–it’s still on a mental back burner–and I really wanted to show women achieving success in a very difficult, competitive field whilst not completely losing their minds or souls in the process. This post makes me think there might actually be a niche for that.

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    • Yes, I agree about the way mental illness is used as a thriller trope. It seems to appear in every thriller now whether or not it’s necessary, and whether or not the writer has the space to explore it effectively and sensitively. A character doesn’t need a history of mental illness for their word to be doubted, but writers seem to think it’s mandatory.

      Oh I would LOVE to read that kind of ballet novel! I could honestly write a whole ‘ambitious women meet bad ends’ post just about ballet books and films aimed at adults. I can’t think of a single one where the protagonists get to achieve joyful success – they’re usually felled by a terrible injury and/or sabotage someone else on the way to the top. It’s such a contrast to the kids’ ballet series I devoured as a child, where hard work and success are presented as positive and desirable. Obviously an adult take would show more of the realities of the ballet world, but I’d definitely like to read a properly nuanced view. Please write it!

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  3. I enjoyed this review essay even though I don’t know any of the books you discuss. (I seldom pick up psychological thrillers; I really liked The Push by Ashley Audrain last year, but I can’t even remember if the narrator has a career in that.) Your general topic makes me think back to my graduate school days, when I wrote a thesis on the Victorian intersection of faith and doubt novels and ‘New Woman’ novels — women who dared to doubt (intellectual ambition?) were also likely to stray sexually, and inevitably would be punished for both. Then again, pretty much any sexual woman in 19th/early-20th-century fiction ended up sorry for it in some way: pregnant and ostracized, or dead.

    One novel that I loved that does portray women’s everyday working life and success is The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker. (Though it’s been over 5 years since I read it, so I can’t guarantee it is thoroughly positive!)

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    • Wow, that thesis sounds fascinating! I’m not so bothered about psychological thrillers like The Push that don’t focus on women’s careers; but I love career-led books and I get so disheartened when book after book pushes the message that women should seek ‘work-life balance’ (which always seems to mean stepping back and focusing on men/children) rather than the success they originally wanted. I’ll definitely check out The Animators, thanks!

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  4. This is really interesting, thank you for pulling it together. I don’t read psychological thrillers, but I’m thinking of some novels I’ve read recently in different genres – Nicola May’s light romance “Ferry Lane Market” series has shown so far women wanting to run their own businesses and succeeding in doing so, one woman was thwarted twice in doing qualifications but pushes on anyway, takes over the business she worked at and then sends her apprentice on the qualification course; she also tells her boyfriend he’s going to have to take a back seat while she builds the business. In Sairish Hussain’s The Family Tree, the only thing undermining the central woman character’s ambition to be an investigative journalist is her opinionated blog where she feels inspired to speak her own mind on contentious issues, and eventually we are sure she will find her role, it’s also interesting about men’s careers.

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    • Yes, this gets at something I briefly mentioned in the review but didn’t expand on – romance books seem to be a lot better at this than thrillers! Sadly, I don’t really enjoy romance, but this certainly deserves to be acknowledged.

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      • You might like The Tree of Life, which isn’t a romance book but I suppose literary fiction. I consume romance books set by the sea or in villages (but preferably by the sea) but do prefer them to have some women-positive merit, too! I’ve never really read psychological thrillers as I’m too feeble, but this aspect would really put me off. It’s excellent to see it written about – thank you!

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  5. What a great post! I think it’s valuable to have books highlight industries that are often sites of misogynistic behavior or abuse, but I also definitely agree that ambitious women meeting bad ends is an unfortunate trope. Like many issues of representation in publishing, I don’t think one individual book having that story is a problem, but it becomes a problem if that’s the only story we get about women being ambitious. I definitely second Liz’s comment that romance seems to do this particularly well. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how often romance novels feature women with fascinating jobs and who achieve professional success as part of their happily every after.

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    • Absolutely – this becomes a problem when book after book features the same tropes. If it was a less frequent occurrence it would be less concerning. It’s a long time since I read romance, but I remember the chick lit I used to read in my early twenties being relatively positive about women’s careers.

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