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Florence Given
Florence GivenCourtesy of Glance Production

I read Florence Given’s debut novel Girl Crush so you don’t have to

The writer’s debut novel is described ‘a hot, dark story’ and ‘a feminist reimagining of Jekyll and Hyde’ – but does it live up to that promise? Here, Eli Cugini offers an honest review

I’ve always been a little confused by how ‘Generation Z’ gets talked about nowadays, particularly since I am, apparently, one of them. (The cutoff seems to be somewhere between 1995 and 1997, which puts me, a 25-year-old PhD student, and my partner, a 27-year-old lecturer, in perplexing adjacency to the term ‘TikTok teen’.) But there’s clearly a thriving market for people who purport to be a voice for Gen Z, both for the sake of Zoomers who want guidance and relatable media, and for the sake of non-Zoomers who want to understand what interests and concerns young people.

Enter Florence Given, a 23-year-old writer, illustrator and queer feminist activist, who the Times has just hailed as ‘the Voice of Gen Z’ for her ‘sexual frankness’ in her 2020 bestseller Women Don’t Owe You Pretty and her first novel, Girl Crush, which debuted this week. Ironically, Girl Crush is about how Eartha, a 25-year-old bisexual woman with a large social media following, is tasked with the impossible demand of being a ‘voice of a generation’ and is almost, well, crushed by it. But despite this seeming disavowal of the idea of being a Gen Z Voice, Given is clearly passionate about the lives of women and giving shape to their experiences; where the book breaks down is both in the limits of its perspective and in its frenzied desire to pack in every topic of discussion.

The book follows Eartha as she leaves her crappy boyfriend – he has a dangly earring, which the novel appears to think is the root of original sin – and ventures into the world of queer dating, while also becoming a popular creator on the social media site ‘Wonderland’, which resembles Instagram but also appears to have some vague Black Mirror deal going on where people ‘plug in’ and project themselves into the site for days at a time. Faced with adoring fans who demand her continual attention and persecutors who police her slightest action, Eartha tries to incessantly curate her online persona with the help of her shadowy agent, while the real-life Eartha starts to neglect herself and her relationships.

Girl Crush is, or intends to be, many things: a guide for young women in bad relationships, an exploration of queer dating culture, a cautionary tale about the pressures of social media, an anti-‘cancel culture’ novel, a dystopian sci-fi, a serious treatment of sexual assault. (The book generally drops previous threads in the pursuit of new ones; it’s impossible not to suspect that Given would have fared better writing a book of essays.) The book is also emblazoned with Given’s signature branding, with its title coming from one of Given’s t-shirt designs (“Maybe it’s a girl crush, maybe you’re queer”) and the cover image resembling one of Given’s distinctive gap-toothed illustrations. Eartha even gushes over the “Maybe it’s a girl crush” line after she finds it graffitied on a wall, a move so dazzlingly self-satisfied that Philip Roth must have grudgingly rotated in his grave.

I will be honest here: the prose of Girl Crush leaves something to be desired. For every moment that raises a chuckle – such as the neighbour couple that blasts “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell as a prelude to raucous post-fight sex – there is another that entertains a little less deliberately, such as “I look down at my nipples. They’re hard.” But I’m more troubled by the sheen of panic found within the novel: Girl Crush is trying valiantly to be so many different things for its readers, and it feels like it’s fighting the slickness of its marketing. Both the tagline – “a hot, dark story” – and the blurb’s hook – “a feminist reimagining of Jekyll and Hyde” – are inaccurate, though the sudden, repetitive use of “it seems like there are two sides to you” in the last 50 pages seems designed to hastily half-justify the pre-agreed Jekyll idea. “Hot, dark story” suggests a sexy vampire lady keeping you locked in her basement, but the breezy sex comedy of the book’s middle third is sharply divorced from the book’s ‘dark’ content, which is very serious and not remotely sexy. If someone tells you this book is a fun summer read, they have not read it.

When writers announce themselves as Gen Z, it usually precedes their self-identification as an authority, a person who can speak to what young people are feeling. But being an authority on anything at 23, including an authority on other 23-year-olds, is basically impossible, and Girl Crush ends up backed into a corner, trying to provide authenticity and tidy messaging and solutions that it can’t reasonably provide. Given is an adult and a successful professional and I don’t wish to detract from her agency, but I wonder if the ravenous market for fully-formed Gen Z ‘voices of a generation’ is actually serving anyone well here. If there’s a consistent message in Girl Crush, it’s that Eartha has a lot to learn, and the constraints of her platform are interested in making her pretend to be insecure and uncertain while actually performing endless surety and wisdom, dispensing snappy taglines and throwing them onto merch. And the exact media economy that’s supposed to reassure young people ends up making them believe that they should already have all the answers.