MONA AT SEA, a novel by Elizabeth Gonzalez James, reviewed by Maria Judnick

“I’m unemployed, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I live with my parents in the most boring town on the planet, and I hate myself” are the words Millennial narrator Mona Mireles recites to herself each night as she tries to sleep. Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ debut novel Mona at Sea offers a look into the wickedly funny and often insightful journey Mona faces to find her place in the world again in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Mona, a recent, highly-successful finance graduate from the University of Arizona, was hired to work at one of the most prestigious investment banks in New York City, only to be downsized (along with thousands of others) the day she arrived. Interviewed as she absorbs the news, Mona’s anxious, angry tirade at the loss of her life’s dream becomes the viral “sad Millennial” internet video: “It’s not fair. I worked really hard to get this job. I was valedictorian. I was president of the Investment Club. I did everything right, you know? Everything. I said no to drugs, I stayed in school, I got straight A’s and ate my veggies and now I just want my job …” This unwanted fame and the subsequent “Tumblr page out there of photos of me giving the middle finger [when recognized]” adds to Mona’s profound shame as she returns home to Tucson, Arizona where she stares at the now meaningless wall of trophies in her childhood bedroom. 

While the novel doesn’t shy away from the deep pain Mona feels, James allows her main character a dark wit—many of her comments lend comparisons to Generation X’s Daria, albeit if she had grown up as an overscheduled, entitled academic wunderkind. Millennial readers, in particular, can sympathize with Mona’s sardonic, but fairly accurate perspective of the society her generation grew up in: “In my long unemployment the one privilege I’ve had is the ability to stand still, and as I watch the world continue without me, it all seems like distractions piled one on top of the others, bricks falling endlessly from the sky like Tetris.” 

As Mona’s job applications balloon into the hundreds, her desperation and depression spiral. James’ Tucson is a place clearly suffering from the Great Recession as Mona meets a few despicable characters in her quest for employment. Additionally, Mona’s close network is preoccupied with their own concerns—her U of A faculty researcher parents are weathering job cuts in their lab, her fraternity president younger brother is fundraising for a seemingly-sketchy charity fund, and her best friend Ashley is staring down the same soul-crushing job market. Forced by her domineering mother to attend an eclectic support group for job seekers at a local church, Mona turns to cutting and alcohol for solace. Ever the perfectionist, Mona cannot even engage in self-harm haphazardly; rather, she draws upon her long-dormant art skills to create an aptly chosen and intricately-planned image on her upper thigh.

While James’ packed plot at times veers a bit towards the daytime TV talk show dramas Mona fills her days with, eventually Mireles realizes she needs to move past her angry outbursts, occasional bad choices, and bitter inner monologues to re-engage with the reality around her. Readers only need to look for Mona’s witty Latin sayings she coins at the end of key scenes to understand her changing perspective. One particularly choice phrase, for example: “Ur sementem feceris ita metes—As you sow shit, so shall that shit come back to thrash you in public”—forces Mona to acknowledge that her behavior warrants a public apology to a friend she has deeply wronged.

When Mona’s networking finally lands her a low-prestige job at a call center located at the back of an RV warehouse, at first, she expresses her disappointment through a snarky attitude towards her co-workers. Slowly, Mona realizes that she should find a way to make her work week more bearable or even vaguely enjoyable. She mulls over the advice of her job seeker’s leader, “[a job’s] just what I do; it’s not who I am. So who am I?”

This question of who Mona truly is outside of this unending drive for success occupies the latter half of the novel. As the young Mireles struggles to move past her once carefully-curated life plans, she’s faced with one additional bombshell—her parents’ marriage has crumbled. Her normally soft-spoken father injects some insights before his own extended trip of self-exploration, “It doesn’t get any easier to know what you want […] And it doesn’t get any easier to know what’s the right thing to do, either.” 

As often happens in any lengthy quest, James gives Mona a few key epiphanies; in this case, change is brought about thanks to an impromptu visit to an art show and a later return to the University of Arizona campus. Her friends re-emerge with their own personal progress to further encourage Mona that change is possible, for as her new boyfriend says, “Sometimes love means being pushed.” Although Mona’s definitive rejection of her previous goals occurs in a scene that sends up the Real Housewives franchises, all but the most jaded of readers will cheer that Mona embraces her own twists on a happy ending. After all, one person’s “sad Millennial” video is someone else’s inspiration to find resilience in the midst of difficult times.

Mona at Sea, by Elizabeth Gonzalez James. Santa Fe, New Mexico: SFWP, June 2021. 270 pages. $15.00, paper.

Maria Judnick teaches in the English and Environmental Studies departments at Santa Clara University while working part-time as the digital projects coordinator for the San Jose State Writing Center. She has been published in academic (most recently, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy) and literary (including Gemini Magazine) journals. She previously freelanced for KQED Pop! and the arts section of the Santa Clara Weekly. 

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