Book review: Maggie’s Going Nowhere by Rose Hartley

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

There is a universal agreement, the exact origins of which are lost to time, that people born into this world will enjoy a fun-filled childhood full of learning and love, somehow survive the confused indignities of the teenage years before moving onto adulthood where they will get a job, find a significant someone and generally behave like a mature person worthy of love, respect and admiration.

It all sounds laudably good but like any societal constant, there’s always a dark side, one that opines that should you fail to observe this social compact you will be regarded, by most people at least, as something of a colossal failure.

There’s not a lot of grey or wiggle room in there, something of which Maggie Cotton, the likably flawed protagonist of Rose Hartley’s Maggie’s Going Nowhere, is all too aware.

Hurtling towards her 30th birthday, Maggie is not exactly ticking the boxes of an idealised adulthood.

She casts boyfriends aside with unfaithful alacrity, has yet to land a paying job owing to taking 10 years, and counting, to finish her accountacy degree, doesn’t own or even rent a home, and is in possession of goods and chattels so scant it’s like someone forgot to send her the modern capitalist memo of endless consumption whether you need it or not.

“Wedding dresses have a special kind of perfume. The one my best friend Jen was squeezed into smelt like rotted hair, mothballs and musk, but that was because the dress was one hundred and three years old and had been stored with the meticulous care that old ladies take of their broken dreams and bitter memories. The light filtering through Jen’s bedroom window fell upon her cleavage, which rose like two pale boulders over dangerously stretched lace. One sneeze and —” (P. 1)

She is, then, by society’s rather exacting standards, the proud owner of an epic fail of a life.

Her mother, still smarting from the departure of her gambling, deadbeat husband some years earlier, certainly thinks so, eyeing her daughter with the disdain of someone who lives in a nice suburb (in this case, Camberwell, Melbourne, Australia) and who has fought hard to get to where she is in life.

While we find out later that her life may not be all that it appears, the fact is that she is unhappy with her daughter’s choices and the resultant state of her life, a scornful assessment that only worsens (to the point of excising Maggie from her will) when in one day Maggie is dumped by her boyfriend, has no place to live, gets kicked out of her university for overstaying her academic welcome and finds out she has a $70,000 Centrelink (Australia’s social security agency) debt.

Yup, it is the day from hell, and Maggie, who buys and moves into a decrepit 1960s silver teardrop caravan is all too aware of it; even so, her life has reached the state it has through laziness and inaction and, initially at least, she sees no reasons to change tack now.

Rose Hartley (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia (c) Angela McKinnon)

That is, until the very handsome Reuben turns up to work at the homeless shelter agency at which she’s putting in 20 hours a week – well, volunteering really to keep the Centrelink wolves from her flimsy caravan door – and her bestie Jen is in very danger of marrying Jono, the slimy, no-hoper and her mother reads her the riot act and gives an ultimatum which demands action of some kind lest Bad Things Happen.

Then Jen has to act – but how, and what will that look like?

Maggie’s Going Nowhere is the latest in a long line of quirky urban character studies, which are all the publishing rage at the moment, in which a person who has fallen foul of society’s penchant for legalistically-enforced behavioural absolutes, whether by their own design or events beyond their control, finds some form of redemption and renewal, or evne possibly both, and ends up with the dream life they didn’t even know they wanted.

Think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman, Star-crossed by Minnie Darke or The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock by Jane Riley, all of which centre on protagonists who are clueless in some respects about what constitutes a well-lived life but who, flawed though their decisions may be, worthy of a life that means something surrounded by people who unquestioningly and unconditionally love them.

Maggie sort of fits this mold but not quite; while she definitely wants things to be better, she also seems more than happy to keep using people (not in a nasty way but use them she does), seems unconcerned about the parlous state of her love life and employment status and reacts to setbacks in life by getting drunk and/or blaming others.

She is, in other words, highly flawed, so much so in fact that while there is very much a sense of the lovable rogue about her – for all her faults and poor decision-making, she does love Jen and her mother and seems to be growing to love Reuben like she has loved no man before him – she is sometimes quite hard to like or appreciate as Maggie Goes Nowhere has a great deal of sage fun suggesting that is exactly where she’s going to end up.

‘Oh, sweetheart. What happened?’

‘Don’t you remember? Sarah Stoll knows I live in a caravan. Everyone knows. I have a Centrelink debt the size of Alice Springs that Reuben assures me is not going away any time soon, and I nearly pass out from the horn every time he speaks, even though I’ll probably lose my job to him. I may as well give up and become a sex worker now, but no one’s going to want to pay me for sex so I’ll have to become one of those girls who wears a sandwich board advertising a coffee and sausage roll for six dollars. Sean and Sarah will come by every day to take pictures and taunt me, and when I’m forty I’ll try to kill myself but fail, and all the cats I ever own will run away.’

She patted me on the shoulder. ‘There there. Dot won’t run away, and if she does I’ll replace her with a cat that looks just like her and you’ll never be able to tell.’ She rolled out of bed.

‘I’ll go get dressed, come round in ten.'” (PP. 180-181)

The only downside to Maggie Goes Nowhere is that it often fails to keep us as engaged with Maggie’s eventual welfare as we should be.

She is lovable in her own way sure, and the book overall is quite enjoyable in the same that all these urban redemptive tales are, but there are many times when you begin to wonder how someone could be this bad at living life.

This is not a censorial thing, a carping on about why Maggie isn’t living up to society’s often suffocatingly high standards (which are by no means foolproof, perfect or beyond reproach) but simply that for all her good intentions, devotion to best friend Jen and attractive qualities as a human being (even her mother has to eventually admit they are there, somewhere).

Simply put, Maggie is not someone who you are really rooting for; you like her and you stick around because Hartley does a good job of making her likable enough but you don’t love her, not in the same way as you care about the protagonists in the books reference earlier in the review.

Maggie Goes Nowhere is a delightfully enjoyable read that ticks all the hapless life-liver turned good boxes, with compelling characters, witty dialogue and some fun twists ‘n’ turns, but it somehow fails to sparkle quite as profoundly as it should, a sign perhaps that not all modern redemptive urban tales, despite their promise of the idealised made flesh, are created equal.

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