Any novel billed as “Secretary meets Fleabag” will make a certain demographic of readers consider whether it is truly a book for them – namely, those of us who wear sensible shoes and go to bed on time. For how are we supposed to relate to Lucy, the mid-twenties protagonist of Anna Fitzpatrick’s Good Girl, a modestly aspiring writer and practising bookseller who is struggling to reconcile her feminist ideals with her desire – in her sexual relationships – to be tied up and slapped?
But of course, things are more complicated than they seem. While Lucy would like people to think she’s “a carefree libertine,” she really cares a lot. She cares about following the rules, supporting the correct political causes, and getting everything right: “Maybe all I want is for somebody to tell me what to do all the time and take care of me and tell me when I’m good and help me when I’m bad, and maybe it isn’t even about sex because maybe I’ve wanted this ever since I saw Secretary, or maybe since I was a secretly horny four-year-old and I watched Beauty and the Beast.”
This wonderful, vulnerable mix of tough and tender, smart and guileless is what makes Lucy such an endearing character. Good Girl is a fresh contemporary twist on books like Lucky Jim and The Dud Avocado, mid-20th-century books whose narratives track the trajectory of a somehow still-charming downward spiral. Lucy tries hard but usually misses the mark: she’s determined to be sex-positive but her sexual encounters are wholly devoid of pleasure, she cares about her best friend but is too solipsistic to attend to their relationship, and she has a fierce sense of who she is and what she wants but has trouble articulating any of this. Articulating it outside the first-person narrative of the book itself, of course, where the reader is privy to Lucy’s multitudes, but also to the gaps in her understanding.
Beneath all this is the skeleton of a plot involving a gonzo-style 1970s teen magazine called Smashed and Lucy’s plan to tell its story to catapult herself to literary fame, which goes about as well as you’d think; this whole storyline fizzles right out, but it doesn’t really matter. Because plot isn’t the point, and Lucy is such good company that readers will be happy to follow her anywhere, along with the delightful secondary characters she finds along the way.
So it turns out that one need not be especially edgy to get along with Good Girl – phew! – and the vital, provocative questions it poses about sex, feminism, and empowerment. The novel, like Lucy herself, is smart and funny, tender and vulnerable, and also wholly absorbing; hilarious passages demand to be read aloud to whoever’s within hearing distance – and lucky them. By the end of the story, Lucy has figured a few things out – not everything (she’s nothing if not consistent), but it is triumph enough. The novel is a joy and Lucy a pitch-perfect literary portrait of an imperfect human being.