by Mary Camarillo
Part of LMAC's Tiny Reviews series
Mona Lisa Mireles, the millennial protagonist of Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ debut novel Mona at Sea, is bitter. She earned a top-of-her-class degree in finance at Arizona State University and was immediately recruited to work at an investment bank in New York. When the economy crashed, Mona lost her dream job before she even started it, an experience captured in full embarrassment on social media. She’s suddenly the infamous “Sad Millennial,” unemployed and unwillingly living in her childhood bedroom in Tucson, Arizona, the most boring town on the planet, according to Mona.
Mona is full of complaints and opinions. “Promises were made,” she keeps reminding anyone who will listen. “We were told that if we worked hard, got good test scores and followed all the rules we could skate past the pitfalls that waited to catch everyone else.” This would sound like whining if Mona weren’t so full of complexities.
She’s sarcastic and cynical, but her close observations are spot-on accurate and wickedly funny. She claims she only wants to be rich, but she’s quick to defend those who can’t defend themselves, including an unfortunate saguaro cactus. James goes to the trouble of showing us that Mona is kind and cares deeply for her troubled family. She’s hyper-intelligent but seems hell bent on self-destruction, drinking bottom-shelf tequila, smoking weed with anyone who offers and letting jealousy nearly ruin a lifelong friendship. She can explain sunk costs and hedge funds but is shocked to hear that not everyone has health care. She’s not always likeable, but she is very human.
It’s easy these days for boomers like me to classify a certain subsection of millennials frequently depicted in popular media as the whiny avocado-toast generation that got trophies just for showing up. Mona’s definitely living in a privileged bubble: her parents are doctors, they live in a very nice neighborhood, and the few friends she has all appear to be white and university educated.
But Mona’s pain is real. Her constant snark hides an inability to trust anyone, including herself. She’s never had a boyfriend and spent her childhood being driven from one resume builder to another, focusing only on what will bring the greatest return. Her parents have made a huge investment in her success, and she’s let them down. Her daily litany is “I hate myself.” The only thing keeping her from falling apart is a secret —she’s carving a picture of Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa on her thigh with a razor blade. There’s another, darker secret revealed toward the end of the book that helps clarify where this pain began.
Change comes slowly. Mona doesn’t listen when her father warns that if she majors in finance, he’ll hate what she’ll become. She even misses the point when her financial-guru hero Laura Horn (a Suzy Orman type) tells her that “Money’s not going to make you happy. People make you happy.” Laura suggests Mona get a job selling shoes. Mona decides that Laura sounds smarter in books than in person.
But when Mona starts to see too much of herself in her driven mother’s eyes and realizes that her father abandoned his dreams, she finally starts to question her own. By the novel’s satisfying and yet still surprising ending, Mona has learned how to carry on despite her disrupted plans—a worthwhile goal for anyone.
Mary Camarillo is the author of the recently published novel The Lockhart Women. She lives in Huntington Beach.