MESSY WOMEN IN LITERARY FICTION (discussion)


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A trope I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is what I’m going to call the trope of The Messy Woman in literary fiction. Now, I’m not saying messy women didn’t exist in literature before now (Madame Bovary especially comes to mind as an example), but I’m talking about a very specific brand of messy woman here (maybe it’s a millennial thing?). I’m gonna use a couple of books, some that I liked and some that I didn’t, to try to describe what I’m actually getting at with this trope.

My first thought when I was drafting this post is: how is women being messy a trope? Isn’t that just female characters being complex/complicated? And I think that could definitely be an aspect of it, but I also think that the cluster of traits I’ve started to notice in the novels I’ve been reading recently fits so neatly into a trope. According to the OED, a trope is “a significant or recurrent theme, esp. in a literary or cultural context,” and that’s exactly what I’m talking about here: a theme that recurs in a lot of recent literary fiction with female main characters, that theme being women being “messy.”

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The Messy Woman trope alternately irritates and interests me. But first let me try to outline what exactly I mean by The Messy Woman. Based on the books I’m gonna talk about below, here are some qualities that I think the Messy Women in them typically have:

  • the Messy Woman is indulgent/selfish/careless/cruel/self-destructive/at times emotionally repressed and at others susceptible to emotional extremes
  • the Messy Woman doesn’t have have great mental health
  • the Messy Woman does not have a healthy relationship to sex/is often sexually involved with really shitty men
  • the Messy Woman tends to be anywhere between her early 20s to mid 40s (?) (I’m not sure about the age of some of the women in these books)
  • regardless of her age, the Messy Woman is at some point in her life where her worldview/emotions/thoughts are very seriously in flux

I have 7 novels which I think really closely fit into these qualities, and which I’ve sort of been keeping in the back of my mind ever since I started becoming aware of this trope. So, here are 7 novels with The Messy Woman trope, 3 of which I disliked and 4 of which I liked. That way I get to explore some of the things I like about the Messy Woman and some of the things I don’t to try to better understand this trope that I’ve just now articulated lol.

Here we go.

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MESSY WOMEN I DISLIKED

Topics of Conversation: A novel: Popkey, Miranda: 9780525656289 ...

I didn’t particularly like this novel. I didn’t much think about why when I first finished it. In retrospect though, and having read some perceptive reviews of this, I think this novel suffers from a major bad case of The Messy Woman trope. The main character of this book is pretty much the quintessential Messy Woman. She’s reckless, she’s selfish, she’s cruel, all whilst acknowledging these things about herself and yet not doing anything about them. She exemplifies my biggest issue with this trope: a lack of accountability.

I’m all for female characters being complicated and cruel and selfish. Male characters can be anything they want to be and still be taken at face value, why shouldn’t female characters be allowed just as broad a range of characteristics?

What the bad version of the Messy Woman trope does, though, is present women who are messy for the sake of being messy, i.e. sans any kind of insightful or substantial commentary on their oftentimes destructive and harmful actions. Female characters can’t be cool because they’re cruel; I can’t root for that. They need to be held at least somewhat accountable for their actions, because their harmful actions actually impact other characters in the novel. I’m not here to celebrate women being shitty, lol.

Giving me a female character and telling me she’s interesting because she does destructive things isn’t gonna cut it. I need for that character to actually have some depth.

(also, as an aside: I’m surprised at how low the average rating is for this book on Goodreads. 2.80 stars? people must have really vehemently hated this lol)


My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Wikipedia

I think My Year of Rest and Relaxation is definitely better than Topics of Conversation, but I didn’t love it (I gave it 2.5 stars) for more or less the same reason as Topics of Conversation. The narrator of this book checks off a lot of the Messy Woman qualities: destructive, reckless, emotionally repressed (with the occasional emotional outburst), not great relationship to sex/in a relationship with a shitty guy, etc. etc. I think to a lesser extent I struggled with this book for the same reason I struggled with Topics of Conversation: the main character seemed so self-indulgent in her whole plan to just sit at home and engage in a whole bunch of self-destructive behaviours.

I think the whole point of this novel is the Messy Woman being messy for the sake of being messy–the narrator just randomly decides she wants to interrupt her life to Rest and Relax–but despite the fact that it was doing it purposefully, I still didn’t enjoy reading about the narrator just being a Messy Woman for ~300 pages.


All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Oh boy. I hated this book. The main character of All Grown Up is another quintessential Messy Woman who doesn’t have a shred of accountability and just wallows in self-pity for the whole novel without doing anything to address her many shitty actions. A big problem with Messy Women is not just that they lack accountability, but that they refuse to take ownership for their decisions, especially when they harm other people. The main character of this book is a perfect representation of that (I’d be more specific about this except I remember nothing from it except that I hated it lol)

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MESSY WOMEN I LIKED

Image result for salt slow julia armfield

I LOVED this book; it’s my favourite ever short story collection, probably tied with Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery. In my review of this, back when I hadn’t really thought about this Messy Woman trope, I wrote:

Jane Austen once wrote in one of her letters, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”; she might as well have written Salt Slow‘s thesis.

Salt Slow is a short-story collection about problem women. The first line of the book is, after all, “I have my Grandmother’s skin. Problem skin.” Problem skin, problem women. The women of this collection are problem women because they are simply too much: too greedy, too selfish, too obsessive, too dependent. Put another way, they are problem women because they are unruly. And what is so brilliant about Salt Slow is that instead of trying to temper the unruliness of its women, it unabashedly leans into—even celebrates—it. It says, These women are problem women—so what? It never tries to make its women anything less than what they are: ferocious, gross, lazy, needy, careless.

That basically sums up my thoughts on this book. I want to amend that review, though, by talking about the ways in which I liked the Messy Women of this book and how they differ from the other Messy Women I disliked. The biggest difference here is that the female characters in Salt Slow are held accountable for their shitty actions and that Julia Armfield substantially explores how their self destructive actions affect them. Either way, the fact that they’re Messy is explored, not just expounded upon for no reason.

(If you haven’t read this collection yet PLEASE READ IT, it’s so good)



There’s a reason why so many of the bad Messy Women books get compared to Sally Rooney’s books: it’s because Sally Rooney’s Messy Women are ACTUALLY GOOD. Plus I think Sally Rooney’s female protagonists are one of the first examples of Messy Women that I remember reading (I haven’t read any Rachel Cusk books but her name comes up a lot too re: Messy Women).

What can I say about Sally Rooney’ books that hasn’t been said already? Her female characters are definitely Messy Women. They’re oftentimes self-destructive (specifically [but not exclusively] in a self-harm way, which is usually not explicitly discussed, but Rooney definitely calls attention to it), they usually don’t have a good relationship to sex (especially Marianne from Normal People), they’re emotionally repressed (especially Frances from Conversations with Friends). But again, Rooney deftly explores those characteristics in a complex, nuanced way, as well as makes her characters sympathetic. Yes they’re going through a lot, yes they’re Messy, but they’re also trying their best, and they actually have a conscience.


Show Them a Good Time: Nicole Flattery: Bloomsbury Publishing

And last but not least is a new addition to this list: Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery, which was such an excellent book. This is the ultimate Messy Woman short story collection. All these stories revolve around girls or women, and ultimately all of them feature these female characters being Messy in some capacity. I think what sets Flattery’s Messy Women apart from the ones I’ve discussed so far is that she uses a kind of wry humour to subvert as well as explore a lot of the Messy Woman tropes. One of her stories, “Parrot,” begins with this paragraph:

“When she thought about the second woman – and she had distantly when she’d been younger; how her life could potentially be upended by someone she didn’t know – it was always with a sort of black amusement. And when she said things that were improper – lines about her current situation that were just slightly off, the dry delivery of which was the reason why her friends were her friends – she had to admit, if only to herself, that she never imagined she would be the second woman.”

It’s exactly about the fallout of a very Messy Woman trait: getting into a relationship with someone who’s already in a relationship, i.e. being “the second woman.” Another story, “Show Them a Good Time,” is full of Messy Woman quotes. An example,

“I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. I withheld the fact that there wasn’t much to discover. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.”

But really, this collection is all about unpacking the tumult of being a Messy Woman: what it’s like to be in a relationship with a shitty guy, or be lost in your 20s and struggling with your mental health, etc. I love it and I highly recommend checking it out.

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I feel like I’ve been writing this post for 5 years. But there is an end in sight!!

This was kind of a strange post to make, and I don’t really know if I’m onto something here or if this is just nonsense, but I really wanted to write this anyway.

Let me know if you’ve also noticed this trope, whether you like it or not, and if you have any other examples of this trope to share (from books you liked or disliked). Do you think this trope is a millennial thing, given that it’s so recent (or maybe it’s not recent?)? I’m so interested in what people have to say about this, so please let me know!!

Anyway, if you read this whole post, thanks so much lol. If you read even a part of it, also thank you so much. I hope you’re all doing well! I’ll see yall on the flip side ✌️


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38 thoughts on “MESSY WOMEN IN LITERARY FICTION (discussion)

  1. Really interesting post! You bring up a great point about accountability. I think it’s all a a part of the idea of character growth; if your character acts badly and never learns from their mistakes, then readers see no point in caring about them. I’ll definitely check out the lit books you’ve liked!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you!! ☺ and exactly! i love flawed characters, but i also need their flaws to be addressed in some way rather than indulged in for the sake of the characters being flawed. and i hope you like them–i really think there are some excellent books there 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never thought of this as a trope! But I certainly have read quite a few books where the female protag was portrayed this way (or her best friend at times). Sometimes the novel will use that as the main plot– Character X is at a point in her life where she needs to clean up her act and figure out what she wants. Or sometimes, being a Messy Woman is how the author creates humour in the book. The last one is kind of like what you’re saying with the book, Show Me a Good Time. So, so interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I never used to think of this as a trope either but I was reading so many books that seemed to feature the same kind of female character and my brain just started connected the dots lol 👀

      And I definitely think that when the female character starts to clean up her act, or at least show a productive kind of self awareness–thats when the trope is interesting and engaging for me. and yes! i definitely see the humour aspect too, though id never considered it (i havent read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine but i get the feeling that its a Messy Woman book thats also funny).

      and thank you so much! i really do think theres a lot to explore when it comes to what this trope is and what exactly its doing ☺

      Like

  3. Great post! I’ve also noticed the Messy Woman becoming a trope in contemporary fiction (and TV), but wasn’t sure exactly how to articulate my thoughts until reading this post. I think the best Messy Woman books also show why the character is messy – Rooney’s books give glimpses into the protagonists’ home lives, and shows how their family dynamic has influenced them.
    The TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also does a really good job of deconstructing the Messy Woman, but it can be painful to watch at times, because they REALLY build the stereotype before beginning to deconstruct it.

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    1. thank you, Hannah!! ☺

      I totally agree–I feel like nuance can make or break the female protagonist when it comes to this trope. Rooney is the perfect example exactly because, like you said, she puts her Messy Women into a context of other things (family relationships, socioeconmic status, upbringing, etc) in their lives, which lets you see the Messiness as more complex than just ‘oh this character has flaws A, B, and C.’

      and omg yes! i was never thinking about TV when I wrote this post but Crazy Ex Girlfriend is such a perfect example! I remember when I watched it, especially season 1, I thought it was just a romcom-type show about a dysfunctional woman trying to get back together with a guy she knew from camp, and I was fine with that. but then the show really delves into Rebecca’s actions and mental health in the latter seasons in a way that I’d never expected it to. (also as an aside, I LOVE the music on that show; Settle For Me is so fun to sing along to)

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  4. As soon as I started reading your post, I remembered Marianne from Normal People. She is the definition of a messy woman! 😀 I still need to read Conversations with Friends, but I’m expecting just the same amount of “mess”. Loved this post ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha yes!! I think Sally Rooney’s female protagonists are always so excellentely written, messy as they so often are 👌 And if you liked Normal People then I think youll like Conversations With Friends too–both are classic Rooney books. thank you so much!! ☺

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oooh what an interesting topic!! The first thing I thought of when you gave your definition of a Messy Woman is the show Fleabag, whose main character fits that description perfectly. In my opinion, it’s a really great example of the Messy Woman because it gets into womanhood and what in her life has made her act “messy,” as well as holding her accountable for her actions.

    I haven’t read any of the books that you listed here (though you’re making me really want to read Salt Slow!), but I think you’re so right that messy women can get to the heart of what is deemed “acceptable” behavior in women in such an interesting way.

    I love what you said about bad examples that “present women who are messy for the sake of being messy, i.e. sans any kind of insightful or substantial commentary on their oftentimes destructive and harmful actions.” That’s always so frustrating because it feels like it’s for spectacle rather than actually creating an interesting character. When the trope is done well, I think it can be fantastic, but when it’s done badly it’s painful to watch.

    Anyways, fantastic post, I really enjoyed reading this!!

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    1. thank you so much for such an insightful response!! 🥰

      omg YES Fleabag is *THE PERFECT* Messy Woman show i cant believe i didnt think of it–i was in the book mindset so much i didnt think to include shows. And I completely agree. In a way I think Fleabag is the Messy Woman trope at its best. Fleabag is a mess, and we get to see her engage in so much self sabotaging, but the show actively invests in moments where we get to see her recognize and deal with that Messiness.

      Salt Slow is SO GOOD I cant recommend it enough! I struggled a bit with how to articulate this trope because I didnt want it to be about female characters being flawed, because a) i love flawed characters and b) i didnt want to be setting some higher moral standard for female characters vs male ones

      YES to the Messy Women being Messy for the sake of spectacle; that was exactly the case for the Messy Women books I disliked. As with any trope, its really all down to the execution.

      thanks again!! i really appreciate your lovely comment ☺

      Like

  6. Great post, thank you! I don’t mind this trope as much but it’s become so popular lately that I’ve become quite sick of it. I also think it feeds into stereotypes about millennials that I don’t recognise at all in my own social cohort. As I wrote in my review of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, I would love to see the inverse of this trope – women who have interesting jobs and are doing interesting, productive things in the world, whether that’s sheep-shearing or biochemistry.

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    1. thank you so much!! 😊

      That’s exactly how I feel! At first I was drawn to these portraits of dysfunctional women as I hadn’t really seen female characters be so unravelled in the novels I was reading before. But the more I read the more I started to notice a specific kind of dysfunctional female character emerging, and the more that I disliked that particular execution of that character.

      The point you bring up about the trope stereotyping millennials is especially compelling because so many of these Messy Women books have been touted as quintessentially millennial. Sally Rooney is a classic example, but also books like Halle Butler’s The New Me (which I haven’t read). It seems like these kinds of books have a very specific vision of dysfunctional millennial women in mind, and I’m not sure that that vision offers much in the way of commentary or productive discussion. I definitely agree with you that I’d love to see more variety in these so called millennial books, especially when it comes to female characters.

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  7. Hi Fatma, thanks for writing this post! I’ve read it with interest. I think you’re certainly onto something. Right after I saw the title of your post, Bridget Jones came to mind. And she’s one of my favorite characters. I do think that the trope of “the messy woman” is a useful one that highlights the complexity of female characters. But seeing it laid out like this in this post, the question that arises is: when does a trope become a stereotype? Hmmm. I’ll continue to think about this. Thanks for this intriguing topic! And I hope you’re well and healthy! -Neri

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank *you* for reading my post!! i really appreciate it 😊

      Bridget Jones is definitely a classic Messy Woman, though from what I’ve noticed I think the Messy Woman trope, or at least maybe the literary iteration of it, tends to be more on the darker dysfunctional side of the Messiness rather than its quirky or humorous side as in Bridget Jones.

      Your question about distinguishing between a trope and a stereotype is so interesting! I don’t know that I have the answer to it either, but it would also be interesting to think about what kind of identity this trope is stereotyping, if it is indeed a stereotype. Is it stereotyping women in general? Millennial women more specifically? I feel like it might be too early to tell, especially as this is a trope I’ve seen emerge in more recent literature, but such a compelling question nonetheless!

      thank you so much for commenting, Neriman 😊

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  8. Great post! I also disliked Topics of Conversation (though not exclusively because of the MC) and loved Sally Rooney’s books. I’m hoping to get on a bit better with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. But I definitely see your point! I think any book that presents an idea without exploring it in a meaningful way can be very frustrating- messy women included. The first example that comes to mind for me is Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, though I’m not sure if it would fall in the like or dislike category for you; if I remember correctly it uses the “messy” characterization as a jumping board to talk about gender and relationships rather than specifically about the messy woman. So, there’s some commentary there, but maybe not exactly what you’re looking for? It’s a very unique book but it really worked for me! I think overall I would have to agree that sometimes this trope works and sometimes it doesn’t, and ultimately it does probably come down to how much is being done with it once the characterization is established.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you! 😊 I havent read The Pisces but from what I’ve heard about it, it definitely sounds like a Messy Woman book, though maybe a bit more on the surrealist/fantasy side of things given that the love interest is a merman lol. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews of it, so I’m not sure if I’d like it or not; Messy Woman books are always hit or miss for me. But from what you’re saying it sounds like it doesn’t just take the Messy Woman trope for granted, which is already better than some of the Messy Woman books I discussed that kind of just indulged in Messiness with no substantial commentary. I’ll definitely check it out!

      And I completely agree–it depends on the execution. But I think for me too the Messy Woman trope is interesting because it is so hit and miss. There’s a fine line between exploring the Messiness to make a point and indulging in it for drama’s sake…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Such an interesting topic to explore! This isn’t a trope that I’d noticed but now that you’ve pointed it out, I can definitely think of books that fall into it. On the one hand, the “mess” is what makes the story – a character in flux can be a character that’s dynamic and really interesting to read about. On the other hand, a character that’s simply messy to create drama is frustrating and hard to care about. And I feel like it’s a lot easier to think of female characters who fit into this trope than male characters…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you Karissa!! 😊

      That’s exactly why initially the Messy Woman trope was so compelling to me in theory! I love reading about characters who are a mess. Female characters especially have a history of being portrayed as the perfect love interest, or only messy in a really bland, one-dimensional way (e.g. with the manic pixie dream girl trope), so I was excited to see them be a mess lol

      Yes! I don’t know why but I haven’t seen this with male characters at all. I feel like there’s something there to do with gender dynamics, but I can’t put my finger on what it is…Not sure why female characters are Messy, but when male characters are messy they’re messy in a completely different way

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s an interesting question for sure…there are male characters that fit this description and yet we don’t consider them messy in the same way. And many of these messy women are written by women authors so it isn’t simply male authors projecting this onto women. I wonder if women are more willing to be vulnerable about their flaws and so appear messy, including in fictional format? There could probably be a whole essay or psychological study here!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Fatma, I’ve been really loving your discussion posts lately. I’ve also noticed this in fiction as well (top of mind, Queenie) and in my mind I’ve labelled them as “hot mess” women, not so far from your own description. What really grates me about this depiction of women is that it again places women on a dichotomy—there’s the “good” woman, whom we do not see enough of in fiction, or the “messy” woman. It feels sometimes as if there’s only ONE WAY for millennial women to be if they haven’t got their sh*t together, and that’s being selfish, self-destructive, stuck-up, and horrible with men (as you’ve mentioned). There’s also an element to performance about this messiness—it’s messy solely for the morbid fascination of the reader, and to reinforce any stereotypes about women being crazy, irrational, etc.

    By the way, I’ve read Sally Rooney’s Normal People (freaking LOVED it—I am still not over the emotional high) and I agree that what makes a good messy woman is that they’re trying, or that the author shows compassion towards their actions and thought processes as they try to figure things out. Like with Marianne (and Queenie, to an extent), she was definitely not okay most of the time, but her actions are understandable.

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    1. thank you so much!! I really appreciate it 😊

      YES I definitely see the way that the Messy Woman tends to form, or at least imply, a dichotomy, with the Messy Woman on one end of the spectrum and presumably “good” women on the other. Some of the Messy Woman books in this post that I disliked actually do that, now that I think about it, especially Topics of Conversation. The Messy Woman in that book is always seeing herself as different because she’s Messy, whereas in her mind all the other women have issues but not aren’t as Messed Up as she is.

      And it’s not even that a Messy Woman can’t be good, it’s that when she’s not written well, she comes off as not even trying to be good. Her whole identity just becomes this artificial mask of Messiness.

      And EXACTLY, I think you hit the nail on the head when you by bringing up this element of performance because I’d noticed it too. (In one of my reviews of a Messy Woman book that’s exactly the word I used.)

      I think Sally Rooney is compassionate and patient with all her characters, and ultimately that’s what makes her a great character. It’s not enough for her characters to be problematic in certain ways, they also have to try to at least investigate those problems, to understand them, or try to explore them, all in the context of relationships with other people, which I really love. 😊

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      1. “The Messy Woman in that book is always seeing herself as different because she’s Messy, whereas in her mind all the other women have issues but not aren’t as Messed Up as she is.” —Yes, I think this is what I take most issue with—the Messy Woman thinking that her messiness makes her Not Like Other Women. I also agree with the artificial mask, because it feels like she’s stubbornly not trying so she can maintain her specialness. Thanks for your comments; now I have a working model on how to think about these kinds of women in fiction!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes! Every time I get a whiff of an “Im Not Like Other Women” trope I’m immediately put off. It’s just so tired and overdone. Thank *you* for helping me think so deeply about this! I really appreciate it 🥰

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I feel like this is something I’ve noticed with some of the characters in some books that I’ve read, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but now that I’ve read this it’s making a lot more sense to me! I’ve seen this quite a bit in some books featuring women in their 30’s-40’s mainly, and I see it a lot in domestic thrillers too. But because the characters in that genre tend to be on the “bad end” of messy women, and more of a focus on plot than development of character, it’s harder for me to invest in those characters, and I think that’s one of the things that put me off from domestic thrillers for a while.

    Now that you mention it though, this does feel common in literary fiction too! It does seem like a fairly recent trope in books. I haven’t read that much older literary fiction, but from what I have read it doesn’t seem to be apparent at all in comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been seeing it a lot with women in their 30s and 40s too, which is why I was maybe thinking it was a millennial thing, or at least something that was being very actively marketed towards millennial women.

      And it’s interesting that you bring up domestic thrillers; I’d never thought to consider Messy Women in that genre but I can totally see how they would definitely fit in to it. I think in theory maybe reading about Messy Women in thrillers, which tend to be more plot-based, would make it easier to read because there’s not so much focus on the Messiness of her character. I feel like in literary fiction the Messy Woman can be especially irritating because there’s is so much focus on her Messiness as a character, as opposed to her actually doing anything about it. But it sounds like what you’re seeing in thrillers is the same as what I’m seeing in literary fiction when it comes to the Messy Woman: most of the time it just doesn’t work :c

      thanks so much for your comment!! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Omg this is such a great post! I absolutely love this trope, which I realized after reading The Pisces. I’ve been looking for more things that fall under this category, so the books you’ve discussed are very helpful. I def agree with Sally Rooney as well, I loooved Normal People.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you so much!! 🥰

      I feel like when I started reading about this trope I loved it (or the idea of it), but the more I read iterations of it that were not executed very well, the more I grew tired of it. Still, I think there are some great examples of this trope out there. (and I know right?? Normal People is amazing 💖)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you!! ☺ its been a long time coming, this post, as i didnt quite know what this trope was until i started connecting the dots across the novels i was reading

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post! I LOVE this trope though I agree it doesn’t always work for me (and Topics of Conversation is a great example). Have you read The Pisces? It absolutely exemplifies the Messy Woman trope in a way that I ADORED.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you!! I haven’t read The Pisces but I’ve heard that it’s definitely a Messy Woman book – I’m not sure if I would like it since Messy Woman books tend to be hit or miss for me, but it sounds just weird enough to work lol

      Liked by 1 person

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