Not Working: A Novel

Not Working: A Novel

by Lisa Owens


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Not Working: A Novel by Lisa Owens

In the tradition of Jennifer Close’s Girls in White Dresses comes a “a pin-sharp, utterly addictive debut” (Vogue U.K.) told in vignettes that speak to a new generation not trying to have it all but hoping to make sense of it all.

“Everyone’s been talking about this book. . . . Charming and funny, this read is simply delightful.”—Bustle

“A deadpan comic debut for the procrastination generation.”—The Guardian

Claire Flannery has just quit her office job, hoping to take some time to discover her real passion. The problem is, she’s not exactly sure how to go about finding it. Without the distractions of a regular routine, Claire confronts the best and worst parts of herself: the generous, attentive part that visits her grandmother for tea and cooks special meals for her boyfriend, Luke, and the part that she feels will never measure up and makes regrettable comments after too many glasses of wine. What emerges is a candid, moving portrait of a clear-eyed heroine trying to forge her own way, a wholly relatable character whose imperfections and uncanny observations highlight what makes us all different and yet inescapably linked.

Praise for Not Working

“Ruefully funny . . . features a kind of millennial Bridget Jones whose red wine–and–TED Talk–fueled pursuit of a higher purpose in life leads to hard truths and hangovers.”Vogue

“In this laugh-out-loud debut, Claire Flannery is a lost soul who quits her day job to discover her true passion. In taking a hard look at her own character, Claire finds that her loveable qualities are sometimes squashed by mistakes, like the evenings she blurts inappropriate remarks after too many glasses of wine. [Lisa] Owens’s story is a smart, relatable and delicious debut.”Harper’s Bazaar
“It’s no mean feat to fashion a novel out of the stuff of everyday life. . . . Fortunately, Owens is quite a writer. . . . Not Working works because there is lots going on beneath its placid, ordinary surface. . . . With this funny, serious debut, Lisa Owens has proved that she’s one to watch.”The New Statesman

“There are sharp observations about generational change, particularly on the topic of work. . . . The novel is a light read but it raises some timely issues. . . . A secure job with a future is not that easy to find, as Claire’s comic and compelling tale serves to show. This book offers a form of catharsis for anyone who has felt that they are not quite doing their job right. . . . It is soothing to find you are not the only one noodling along in your career.”Financial Times

“Stellar . . . [Owens has an] ability to take the potentially trite problem-of-the-privileged trope and deftly craft it into readable fun.”Publishers Weekly

“Owens offers a millennial take on the traditional British chick-lit heroine. . . . Claire is a realistically awkward character who will appeal to readers looking for a less-angsty take on the new adult trend.”Booklist

“A novel as insightful about the contemporary dilemmas facing young professionals as it is sharp, incisive and laugh-out-loud funny.”The Observer

“Lots of people say they laugh out loud when they read a book they love. But in the case of Not Working, I really did laugh out loud, often and raucously.”—Elisabeth Egan, author of A Window Opens

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812988819
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Lisa Owens was born in 1985 and grew up in Glasgow and Hertfordshire. Not Working is her first novel. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt



There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-­greens and a huge “Free Palestine” badge.

“Are you the owner?” he asks, and I turn to see if he is talking to someone else, but there is no one behind me. It buys me a second to remind myself which side of the Israel-­Palestine conflict I am on.

“I think so, yes,” I say, and then with more confidence, because now I’m sure, “Yes, I’m definitely the owner.”

He scratches his neck, which is gray with dirt. His ears have the same ashy hue.

“You need to get the buddleia removed. It’s a hazard.”

“Oh right,” I say, looking up to where he is pointing, to a plaster pillar on the front of the building, topped by an ornamental detail. I’ve never noticed it before, but now I’m embarrassed to see that the paintwork is cracked and filthy. If anyone had asked me to name it—­if a million pounds had been resting on it—­I would have guessed it was called a balustrade. “Does it not serve a structural purpose?” I say.

He stares at me, tugging on his beard, which tapers into a slender plait.

“It’s a weed. It’s not supposed to be there,” he says, and now I understand: there is a plant sprouting from the top of the thing, a spray of purple flowers. It’s quite pretty.

“And . . . sorry, who are you?” I ask, wondering if he is from the city council, a neighbor or an interfering passerby.

“Colin Mason, MBE,” he says and offers a dusty hand.

I hesitate for a fraction of a second before good manners kick in and I take it.

“Claire,” I say.

“Shall I deal with it, then?” he asks, nodding up at the buddleia. “I’ll do a bit of a paint job while I’m up there too.”

“Mm, just . . . I’m going to have to talk to my boyfriend about it first. Because we share ownership. How can I reach you?”

“I’ll be around,” he says. “You’ll see me about.”

I go inside to wash my hand and call Luke. A woman answers, his colleague Fiona.

“He’s scrubbing up for surgery,” she says. “Can I get him to call you back?”

“Would you mind just holding the phone to him so I can have a quick word? Two seconds, I promise.”

There’s a fumbling noise and then Luke’s voice.

“What’s up?”

“There’s a problem with our flat. A buddleia needs removing.”

“A what?”

I sigh. “It’s a weed. A purple flowering weed? The guy outside said it needs to go.”

“What guy?”

“Colin Mason.”

“Who’s that?”

“He has an MBE. He was pretty adamant.”

“So what do you want to do? Do you need to call someone? Can I leave it with you? Claire,” he says, “I’ve got to go.”

“Yes, leave it with me. What do you want to do for dinner?”

“He won’t be home for dinner,” Fiona says. “He’s going to be working late.”

“Oh,” I say. I think I’ll sit tight on the buddleia thing for a while; see if it develops.


Three women opposite talk about the weather as if it’s a friend they don’t much like.

“And that’s another thing,” says one, leaning in. “My no-­tights-­till-­October rule has gone straight out the window.”

Her companions bob their heads, uncross and recross their nylon-­clad legs.


My mother phones me on her lunch break. I can hear she’s in a cafe.

“Where are you?” she asks, as though she’s picking up a baffling background cacophony, instead of the silence in my kitchen.

“At home.”

“I see. How’s the you-­know-­what going?”

She means “job hunt”: calling it the “you-­know-­what” is, incredibly, less annoying than the question itself.

“Yep. Fine. Just trying to push on.”

“Listen, before you go, what do you make of this? I had an awful dream last night that I saw Diane, the . . . Diane from work. It was definitely Diane, but in the dream I thought she was someone else, a stranger.”

Until now I have only heard my mother describe her as “Diane the black receptionist.” I have a feeling there is more to come.

“Funnily enough”—­this is said as though it’s just occurred to her—­“I did see a woman who I thought was Diane yesterday in town, and went to say hello but then realized it wasn’t her.” She laughs. “Claire, what do you think? Do you think she would have been offended?”

“Who,” I say, because I can’t resist, “Diane or the person you thought was Diane?”

“The other lady. Not Diane. Do you think she would have known that I confused her with someone else, with another—­”

“Another woman of color?” I help her out.

“Oh,” my mother says, “I don’t think that’s very PC. I don’t think you can say ‘colored’ nowadays.”


A few seats down the car, there’s an old man knitting, bald and cozy in a big white woolen cardigan. I smile at him and raise my eyebrows, and when I do, I see the earrings, purple dangly ones, and realize it isn’t an old man at all but a woman, not so old, my mother’s age maybe, who has lost all her hair. She grins at me, the needles clicking away, and I keep my eyebrows up, smiling hard at my hands, which lie still in my lap.


After the main course is cleared away, the waiters—­who are really just teenagers—­bring out dessert: bowls of melting ice cream and fruit swimming in syrup. I’m sitting at the children’s table with the other children. (We’re all over twenty-­five.) My cousin Stuart, who beneath his suit jacket is wearing a “No Fear” T-­shirt, asks me what I’m doing these days.

“I’m working that out,” I say. I’ve had a lot of wine: it keeps coming and I keep drinking it. “I quit my job two weeks ago so I could take a bit of time to try to figure out why I’m here. Not in a religious way, but I believe everyone has a purpose. Like, how you were made to be in computers. That makes total, perfect sense.” I stop, worried suddenly that he’s a normal engineer and not a software engineer, but he nods.

“Marketing wasn’t your calling, then.”

“Creative communications,” I correct him.

“Won’t lie: I never really knew what that meant.”

“It . . .” I prepare to launch into an explanation, then realize I may never need to again, “doesn’t matter anymore.”

“There aren’t any spoons,” Stuart says, and I beckon one of the teenagers over.

“Could you bring us some spoons, please?” I am indignant that I should even have to ask, and my tone is pleasingly chilly. The boy waiter smirks. When he comes back, he’s clutching a bouquet of knives, which he releases in a silver cascade in front of me.

“No spoons left,” he says. “No forks either. We’re really busy today.”

I shake my head. “Unbelievable,” I mutter to Stuart as we dole out the knives. I slice off some of the shrinking ice-­cream island and carefully lift it to my mouth. I look across to the table where my poor grandmother is sitting. Her husband of sixty years is only just in the ground and she’s licking a speared peach-­half like a lollipop.

During coffee, Stuart’s dad, my uncle Richard, gives a speech about Gum. He pokes gentle fun at the pride Gum took in his “war wounds”—­the scars from his many operations.

“He really did love to show off his war wounds,” I say to our table. My cousins nod and smile, murmuring agreement. “And more!” I continue, pointing down at my lap and laughing. “Even after the heart op.”

“Whoa,” says my cousin Faye. “What? Gum used to show you his . . . ?”

“Oh—­no, no. ‘Show’ makes it sound . . . It wasn’t . . . I don’t think it was really on purpose or anything,” I say. Everyone is looking at me. No one is talking. “Honestly, it definitely wasn’t a big deal. At all. I always thought it was—­Did no one else have this? How it used to just kind of slip out?”

Faye is shaking her head. Her ears, poking through her thin blond hair, have turned red. I glance around at all the other cousins’ faces; most are gazing into their coffee. I dump a packet of sugar into mine and stir it with the knife I saved from dessert.


At night driving on the motorway, my lights won’t turn on, but each passing car has theirs on full beam, dazzling between fretful stretches of darkness.

Context is everything

“The buddleia (or buddleja bush),” according to one website, “can either be a beautiful flowering garden bush attractive to butterflies or a vile, destructive, invasive weed.”


I take the bus to the gym I can’t really afford anymore. I choose a seat by the window and try to make progress with my book. (I have been reading Ulysses for nearly nine months.) When I’ve read the same paragraph five or six times, I look up, desperate for some relief from the words. An old guy in a powder-­blue jacket with long, sparse hair is coming slowly down the aisle. He looks around for a seat, but they’re all taken and no one gets up, so like a stoic he sets his mouth and grips the handrail next to him. I think about offering mine, but I’d have to ask the woman next to me to move. She looks important, smartly dressed as if she’s going to a meeting. She’s reading through some notes and I don’t want to disturb her, or make her feel bad that she didn’t offer up her seat. I go back to Ulysses and, burning with the effort of pretending I haven’t noticed the old guy, I finally make it onto the next page. When the woman next to me gets off, the old man stays where he is. I watch him sway and shuffle with the movement of the bus, dancing in his orthopedic shoes.


At the gym, I try to get out of my membership contract.

“You’ll need to wait until the thirtieth of the month to hand in your notice, and then your contract will end two months after that,” the woman whose name badge says frankie tells me. It’s Halloween and she is dressed as a witch, with a hat, a cape and her nails painted black. Underneath the cape, she’s in a shiny black unitard.

“But the thirtieth is a full month away,” I say. “Can’t we just pretend it’s yesterday?”

“If only!” she says, rustling a tin of retro sweets at me sympathetically. I take a pack of butterscotches and crunch them two at a time.

She looks at her records. “I see you still haven’t had your Full-­body Analysis. Shall we do that now, as you’re here?” I had been putting it off until I got fitter because I wanted to get a better score than Luke, but it’s been two years and if I’m leaving, I might as well get it done. She comes around the reception desk and ushers me to a table, taking her plastic broom with her.

In response to the questionnaire, I tell Frankie that I don’t drink any alcohol or coffee, and that I sleep for nine hours every night. My blood pressure is good and so are my resting levels, but when she tests my aerobic fitness on the treadmill, I’m so eager to impress that I nearly slide off, and my vision goes dark while I gasp for breath.

“How often did you say you come here?” Frankie asks, looking at her clipboard. “Have you thought about a personal trainer?” By the time I leave, I’ve signed up to three one-­on-­one sessions with a personal trainer named Gavin, at a specially reduced introductory rate of £99.99.


I’m not sure if my mother has been storing up material for our conversations, or if it’s part of the process of grieving for her father, but these days when she phones, she seems to have an awful lot of awful news to relate.

“Pippa from church, in the choir—­you know her. The husband, an atheist—­you wouldn’t have met him. Slipped and fell in the shower: it’s touch-­and-­go whether he’ll walk again. I’ve sent Dad out to buy one of those rubber mats. You can’t be too careful.”

And: “Gordon two doors up from us, well, his son-­in-­law, the policeman—­I told you, remember? Depressed. Several attempts, over the years, but they thought he was over all that. Anyway,” she says with a sigh, “it would seem this time he did succeed.”

My next move

I go to a cafe to get out of the house and bring my laptop so I can do some career research. There is a table of about eight women, all with babies, and a couple of them are breastfeeding. They’re talking about how hands-­on their husbands are, and while their one-­upmanship makes me slightly suspicious, I can’t deny that the women look great. Their skin is fantastic, and the babies are all so sweet—­tiny, quiet and content.

I’m surfing websites for jobs, but don’t know what I’m looking for and all my searches keep returning sales or executive positions way above my earning bracket. A woman comes in who looks about my age, balancing a toddler on her hip, a little girl. The two of them are in matching Breton-­striped tops and jeans, and when she orders a coffee, she actually has a French accent. She sits at the table next to me and the child is off: behind the counter, under the table, climbing up the stairs marked no entry. She is delightful; the baristas don’t mind at all.

I click on a description for a heritage job, which involves writing the blue plaques on buildings where notable figures used to live. I could definitely do that, I think, sum someone up in a couple of words. I consider how I would blue-­plaque people I know: Luke = “eminent physician”; Paul = “pioneering artist”; Sarah = “educational innovator.” I have a harder time with the ones who work in PR and management consultancy, and decide that’s because they probably wouldn’t deserve a blue plaque anyway.

The toddler is at my table, holding out her arms and waving both hands from the wrists, beaming. I do the same and she laughs, runs away, buries her face in her mother’s lap saying, “Maman, Maman!” and the mother, who might in fact be younger than me, bends over to murmur a stream of French into her daughter’s bright bobbed hair.

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Not Working: A Novel 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
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Laura_at_125Pages More than 1 year ago
3.5 Stars - Original review @ Not Working is Lisa Owens’ debut, and it is mostly successful. Styled as a rom-com where the main character, Claire, quits her job abruptly as she just doesn’t like it and relies on her medical student boyfriend for support. Then she seeks her next big step amongst “charming” foibles and many starts and stops. The plot of Not Working was nothing really new but was different enough that I continued reading. The wrap-up was expected in this type of read and did not disappoint. Lisa Owens’ writing was good, but lacked a certain finesse that I hope is just due to her inexperience. I enjoyed the pacing as the story was told in small bursts, with some portions just a few sentences. I found it a unique way to tell a story. The world built was a bit lacking due to the vignette style. The emotions and characters were there, ish. I did feel with Claire but was also frustrated with her as she put her needs first and expected everyone else to feel sorry for her that she quit her job. The boyfriend was also frustrating as he put up with a ton of crap. Not Working did actually work on a lot of levels. The story was cute, fast read that resolved itself well. It was just a bit too scattered to fully be amazing and the main character was a bit to self-centered for me to truly love. I do think Lisa Owens has potential for something big and for a debut, Not Working was well done. I will watch out for Owens and hope her sophomore try is a bit more fine tuned. I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
IoanaN More than 1 year ago
This novel reminded me of Bridget Jones's Diary, only this was the upgraded version for the 21st century readers, mainly the millennials. The job-that's-not-mean-to-be-the-one is the main problem in Claire Flannery's life, so she quits it to have time to think what she wants to do next. She lives with her doctor-in-training boyfriend of seven years, Luke, who seems to have it together. To add to the list of problems in her life, Claire's relationship with her mother is hindered when Claire makes a remark that spoils the image of her late grandfather. I thought that bit was a tad too much. Claire and her mother were made to seem different and unable to find a common ground; it was just like watching a mother-teenager relationship, but in this case the mother was the one with the personality of a teenager. I see why the author wanted to create some tension in that area of Claire's life, but the reason of this tension could have been a better one. My favorite part of the novel was the insecurity, the search, and undecided-ness regarding her "meant to be" job. It's probably one of the most pressing questions 20somethings ask themselves. She has a lot of free time on her hands, and this gives her time for introspection, time to cook and play the domestic girlfriend, and also time to visit her Grandmother who is far from the helpless Grandmother one is tempted to imagine. Claire may come across as selfish, a brat, or even unkind person, but funny enough, all her flaws made her a very real character, unlike the other characters in the novel. It seems as though Claire, the main character, was surrounded by characters not fully developed yet, but who all wanted a say in everything she did. While reading this novel and observing Claire's interactions with her family members, and sometimes this applied to Luke as well, it felt as if they were uninterested in the other family members' lives. Witty replies and observations which bordered on meanness were the norm most of the times. This made me root even more for Claire, despite her flaws (she could make some unwise remarks after a glass too much of wine) and wandering through life. I really, really, really wanted to see her find a job she likes and enjoys going to, but this is not something the author decided to do. I, however, kept picturing Claire as a magazine writer or column writer because I liked her observations and wording. There are nine chapters in total, but there are many smaller sub-chapters, each with a title. They were plain irritating in the beginning, but as I kept reading, I saw how they made the novel feel like a whole, especially since it is formed of Claire's unplanned and haphazard moments throughout the day, weeks, months. To my surprise, I read this book with a lot of enjoyment, I couldn't wait to pick it up any chance I had throughout my day. It is a novel that will certainly appeal to the late 20somethings as well as to those in their 30s. I received a copy of this book via Net Galley. All thoughts expressed here are my own.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
This was a pretty funny book about a girl, Claire, who quit her job to find something more meaningful. Of course, she has a hard time doing so, simply because her dream job descriptions have great office views, big pay checks, lots of perks and include a nice expense account. That's all she can think about. The details aren't that easy to come by. Claire also has has a surgeon in training boyfriend whereby they have some pretty funny moments together as well. The funniest relationship is with Claire and her mother. This book just kept me laughing with the stories and a few antidotes thrown in here and there. I want to thank Random House and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. This was certainly a pleasurable read that I would recommend to others who like a good laugh