Review by Amy Midanik-Blum
In Jessie Tu’s debut novel A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, we follow a twenty-something-year-old violin prodigy named Jena, whose pattern of floating from one male prospect to the next is interrupted when she lands a temporary spot with the prestigious New York Philharmonic. Her intimate relationships drive the plot of this novel, and each one is full of intricacies.
Jena is someone who’s approach to music and sex are similar: get in, deliver a performance, take a bow and leave. But the challenges of music and sex are more than skin-deep to her – they define her self-worth.
In many ways, this novel is about attention: how we crave it from others, how we pay it to ourselves, and the consequences of its uneven distribution. Jena uses sex as a self-affirming act, a distraction, a means to an end, a reclamation of her bodily autonomy in a grittiness reminiscent of Edie in Raven Leilani’s Luster or Rachel from Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed. We get the sense that Jena is attempting to conquer her sexuality by falling into the exact category of passivity that men expect of her, sucking as much empowerment from those interactions as possible. From her best friend’s boyfriend to a married friend-of-a-friend, Jena’s conquests both fuel and chip away at her self-esteem. The most apparent strength of Jena’s characterisation comes from this determination to go after exactly what suits and run from what doesn’t.
Jena’s sexual escapades are bookended by concise, yet graceful, descriptions of her in the musical zone where ‘everything is suspended’. She submits herself to the will of her instrument. In this zone, Jena owns her power and is keenly aware of the effect it has on the audience – so deeply entrenched in what has always come naturally to her. But with these moments few and far between, perhaps the most compelling element of this novel is Tu’s sustained reflection on the artist’s experience in all its inconsistent glory. It toys with the idea of ‘making it’, suggesting that ‘making it’ as an artist is always more of a journey than a destination.
I see Jena as a part of the new wave of literary heroines, standing on the shoulders of outdated, historically white, predecessors. She demands to be seen and heard as a sexual being, a complicated and haunted person with the potential to be everything in between. She is flawed; she’s destructive and careless, and at times, her inner thoughts feel designed to provoke irritation in the pragmatic reader. But watching her roll up her sleeves time and time again is inspiring.
‘To be lonely is to want too much,’ Jena’s mum tells her. That is the essence of it all – to be lonely is to want, and to want openly, especially as a woman, is to be disquieting, badass and dangerous. Jena is both the lonely girl and the dangerous thing, containing multitudes of melancholy and unwritten electricity, unleashing herself onto the world with abandon.
Amy Midanik-Blum is a very recent graduate of the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program at the University of Melbourne. She loves the library and hates rude people. This is her first published book review so please be nice to her.