Monica Heisey's 'Really Good, Actually' is a millennial ode to becoming an adult in the 2020s

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The cover of Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey.
The cover of Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey.

Really Good, Actually (4th Estate) is the brainchild of new voice in fiction Monica Heisey, who is otherwise no stranger to the entertainment industry, having contributed to some of our favourite moments in on-screen comedy. This book is a quintessentially millennial ode to becoming an adult in the 2020s.

Shortlisted by Elle Magazine as one of the most anticipated reads of 2023, Schitt’s Creek writer Monica Heisey’s debut novel Really Good, Actually chronicles a year in the life of 28-year-old Maggie as she separates from her husband after only 608 days of marriage.

On the face of it, this might look like a humorous take on ending a relationship that you thought was "forever", but Heisey’s comedic spin on modern young adulthood cuts deep into the millennial psyche, with relatable home truths punctuated by sharp witticisms. If you find yourself in your twenties to mid-thirties (or somewhere in the periphery), don’t be surprised if Heisey’s pointed one-liners have you choking on your flat white.

"But who cares?" laments Maggie at one point. "Nothing matters, everything ends, the world is ruled by greedy misogynist racists, and all the affordable furniture looks like shit." 

At the heart of it, Really Good, Actually is a story of self-actualisation. It’s about one woman’s journey back to the self she never knew she’d lost. It’s inspired by the author’s personal experience as a young divorcee. In it, Heisey explores what would’ve happened had she acted on certain spur-of-the-moment impulses she’d had during the lowest lows of her divorce (assuming she were as unsupported and, frankly, unhinged as her protagonist). 

Samantha Herbst recently spoke to the author about what she’d wanted to explore with the book, how it differs from the average coming-of-age millennial novel, and what she’s working on next. 

Monica, you’ve worked on some really successful projects in recent years, including the Netflix comedy hits Schitt’s Creek and Workin’ Moms. Is there something special about this book being a project that’s all yours?

At first it was a little intimidating because I am used to being part of a team behind a television show. So having something that is so personal, particularly because the material is really personal to me, has been really exposing, but in a way that ultimately feels really worth it. It’s always nice to hear that it’s resonating with people.

For me, the most relatable part about Maggie’s story is that she and her husband don’t split up for any one big reason, and that’s actually the way a lot of divorces or break-ups happen. Yes, you said forever, but maybe it’s just not working anymore, and it’s difficult to explain that to people.

So many books about break-ups end up being relationship stories that question whether or not the relationship would’ve worked, or if they’re going to get back together, or if both parties will find love again… 

I really wanted this book to be about being alone, rather than being with someone, or the feeling of not being with someone. It’s about Maggie’s relationship with herself, which she hadn’t realised she’d been neglecting during her marriage.

Maggie’s friendship circle plays a pivotal role in the book, with each character contributing in their own way to her healing journey. They also take none of Maggie’s BS, which is a dynamic easily recognisable to any reader with a close group of friends from university or college. 

I feel like I’ve read a lot of novels about messy women going through difficult times, and they all seemed kind of uniquely friendless. Whereas, for me, going through my own divorce, I never felt luckier to have the friends that I have, and I wanted to write a love letter to those support networks.

It was also really important to me that Maggie’s friends not be those stock friendship characters from a romantic comedy, where their only interest in life is the love life of the protagonist. I wanted to be clear that this friend group was being pulled away from their own lives, their own problems, their own complications, and that they were making space within that for their friend who was going through a difficult time. It’s a big act of care.

Monica Heisey
Monica Heisey. (Photo: Rachel Sherlock)

In terms of the autobiographical element of the book, you went through a divorce in your twenties, but Maggie also looks like you (if you consider both the US and UK covers)…

I think Maggie looking like me was important. I don’t think I’d be able to write a real portrait of a woman in crisis without getting into a crisis of body image. I had the most experience and opinions about what it’s like to live in this body and look like me, so I thought that sharing a visible profile was efficient. 

Were you as full of shit as Maggie is during your divorce?

(Laughs) No. I often say that the novel is emotionally true while the events in it are fictional. I definitely did not behave during my own breakup the way that Maggie behaves. But I did want to explore the feelings and impulses I had had, not all of which were particularly flattering. Maggie has feelings and impulses that we all can relate to, but the key difference between me and her is that she acts on a lot of them.

This book was about looking at difficult thoughts or feelings I’d experienced, and exploring what it would be like if I hadn’t had any of the coping skills I’d had during my own divorce. For example, Maggie is very sceptical of therapy, but I’d had an ongoing relationship with a therapist that pre-existed my marital problems. So I was able to process some of that with her help. Maggie is someone who sits farther back on her journey towards maturity and personal growth. She’s a worst-case-scenario version of me, basically.

Would you describe this as a coming-of-age novel? Does a coming-of-age novel have an age limit?

I think it definitely is a coming-of-adulthood story, particularly about the difference between how you say you’re doing and how you’re actually doing, or how you think you’re doing and how you’re really doing. And I think that applies whether you’re talking about processing a breakup or just trying to get by and develop an adult life that you feel proud of.

A few years into marriage, so many couples realise how they thought they’d made these adult decisions in getting married or settling down, but there’s potentially a "What now?" element to marriage that this book explores. I feel like that’s a large part of why some marriages fall apart.

I think marriage still is enormously rewarded in women’s lives. The year I got married was also the year I published my first book, which was an essay collection. And I would run into people I hadn’t seen in a while and they would say, "Congratulations!" and I would think that they were talking about the book, and they would actually mean my marriage.

People were much more excited for me having locked down a man. I think we like to think we’re a little farther along, but marriage still legitimises your life socially and culturally in a way that not many other choices can at that age. Whereas, being married actually says nothing about your maturity level. Losing it feels pretty bad, but I also think that having it can make you abandon some of the other, maybe less exciting or less culturally rewarded steps towards personal growth and adulthood.

What’s next for Monica Heisey? Are there any more sardonic romances in your future?

I hope so! We’re developing Really Good, Actually for television, so that’s something that I’m working on right now, but it’s in the very early stages. I’ve also got another novel that I’ll be working on over the next year and a bit, and then I have my first romantic comedy/television show coming out in the summertime on Sky. It’s called Smothered for now, which is a working title. But hopefully that’s the title.

Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. She’s been published in The New YorkerThe New York TimesVogue, Elle, The Guardian, Glamour, New York Magazine, and VICE, among others. She has written for television shows like Schitt’s Creek, Workin’ Moms, the Baroness von Sketch Show, and moreMonica currently lives in London. Really Good, Actually is her first novel.

This interview has been edited for brevity. For access to the full interview where Monica chats about prose, format, self-care and platonic love, listen to the full episode here via The Great Equalizer podcast.

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