Book Review: The Overthinkers by Lisa Portolan & Ben Cheong

Tiana Lynch
August 22, 2023

Genre: Literary Fiction

‍Content warnings: eating disorders, drug addiction, sexual content 

‍Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: a book that tries to be thought-provoking but isn’t at all and is funny to think about after

On the surface, this book seems simple enough. Four young adults trying to navigate life and all the grey areas in between within the privilege of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Love, sex, adulting and taking care of themselves. Unfortunately, beneath the interesting cover, it’s a book of unfiltered messy characterisation that should’ve been redrafted several times. It read like it was trying to be extremely thought-provoking, but it wasn’t and came across as incredibly hollow and sometimes hilariously tone-deaf. 

Let’s go over the characters because we pretty much spend all our time in their heads. Benji, Hamish, Leo, Francesca and Maddison. You may be wondering why I’ve listed five characters instead of four, as mentioned in the paragraph above. That is because there are five main characters, and the synopsis on both the cover and in the book's blurb was misleading. I don’t know either.

Benji is a self-conscious dork with any female in a fifty-metre vicinity completely infatuated by him, but he’s oblivious to all this of course. He’s stuck in his head and constantly spaces out in social situations. He doesn’t have a meaningful relationship with his parents because they are too “woke” and are trying to force their progressiveness onto him. Or something. And he’s also obsessively in love with his best friend’s roommate, Francesca Moore. To the point where he stalks her using Snapchat maps. Yeah. 

“I knew my mum and dad would have loved a queer son. It would have been something to set them apart. I mean, their diversity rating was virtually zero. They were white, straight and privileged. Having a queer son would have given them something to cling to.”

Francesca is a painter who hasn’t painted in months. She’s anorexic, and everyone knows it, but she doesn’t like when it’s said aloud. She has a crush on Benji but teases and constantly friend-zones him cruelly. She only cares about herself, and climbing the social ladder because she’s not from the eastern suburbs and desperately wants to fit into that crowd even though she constantly judges and criticises said crowd. Who exactly is on this social ladder, and its purpose is never explored. She uses Hamish to climb said social ladder and doesn’t respect his feelings.

Hamish is a drug dealer who also has a drug addiction. Like Benji, he also doesn’t have a meaningful relationship with his parents, who try to pretend he doesn’t exist because he brings shame to them. He pretends to date his ‘best friend’ Francesca in public so she can climb the eastern suburbs social ladder. He’s riddled with mental health issues but refuses to get help for any of it, even though his wealthy parents are paying for him to see a psychologist. He also has a crush on Maddison nobody-knows-her-last-name, and has secret flings with her occasionally. 

Leo is a personal trainer who is gay and Asian. He is roommates with Francesca Moore and best friends with Benji, kind of? He’s very cold, angry, self-absorbed and keeps to himself. That’s all I can say about him because his only job in this story is to complain about being gay and Asian. And while I am not Asian, there was a lack of nuance or depth to this characterisation that made it very hard to understand his perspective. He constantly dismisses his ‘friends’ and judges them while also refusing to self-reflect on himself. He lives off validation from people he hooks up with, and fails to see the irony of him cheating with other people but then gets mad when his one consistent partner cheats on him too. 

“I almost dropped the phone. He was using Grindr? I could taste bile. I mean I know I had been using Grindr last weekend … but that was a desperate spiral, because he was ignoring me. Not only had we pledged exclusivity, but the guy was married. Was he even serious right now?” 

Maddison has no personality except for not fitting in…anywhere. She fades into the background, and nobody knows she exists. Her parents are extremely wealthy and well-known, but nobody seems to care about her. She has an obsessive crush on Benji and resents his infatuation with Francesca. She’s extremely critical of how everyone around her is fake and hates how she fakes being happy herself. Her commentary on the appearances people put up in public was interesting, but surface-level because she never really tried to challenge the status quo or do anything with her thoughts.

Anyways, those are the characters. Now, you must be wondering, Tiana, what’s the plot of this book with these polarising but interesting characters? Well…

There is none.

There is no plot.

It is entirely character driven and as though you live in these characters' heads. It’s an interesting concept but is entirely underwhelming and ultimately pointless because of its execution. I can’t stress enough how entitled all of these characters are. Every character constantly whines about how their lives are ‘oh so hard’, but their friends' lives are nowhere near as hard as theirs. It felt like the antithesis of a book exploring the layers of intersectionality because characters would mention the intersections applicable to them but do nothing to analyse or critique their situations through these lenses. This particularly frustrated me with characters like Francesca and Leo. Instead of providing some nuanced commentary on how Francesca's life has been impacted by lower socio-economic class or how Leo's life has been affected by falling between the intersection of Asian and LGBT+, we get 200-plus pages of whining with no substance.

I understand that especially with regards to race, I'm probably not the best person to talk about intersectionality and how it should be portrayed in literature. But it was incredibly frustrating to see Leo get so close to thinking critically about his situation and then do an immediate U-turn. Same with Francesca. The poor world-building in this book also has a hand to play in this, as the ‘Eastern Suburbs’ setting was never utilised in any meaningful way. Also, what is the purpose of this ‘Eastern Suburbs social ladder’? Who is on it? Why does Francesca want to climb it so badly? Those were only some of the questions I couldn’t find answers to.

“He was the kind of guy that didn’t want to record every moment of his life for social media. The kind of guy that thought social media was kind of shit. He was too woke for that sort of shit. That level of phoniness.” 

I spent most of my time reading confused by what message this book was trying to send and who the target audience was (because it certainly wasn’t me). There’s no resolution to any of the minor conflicts that form a basic layer of a story either, we end on basically the same note that the book began on. In addition, characters like Hamish and Maddison feel arbitrarily connected to other characters for the sake of adding more drama or perspectives to the book. It was very unrewarding to read. 

The book tries way too hard to be a ‘realistic’ portrayal of the lives of young adults in the modern age while also shoving things together for convenience's sake. Apparently, in this world, everyone at the university knows each other even without doing the same course. And all of these characters can have some form of housing paid for on their own without having any disclosed jobs. 

The constant use of lingo like “wokeness” was incredibly distracting and took away from the moments of the book where it tried to be thought-provoking. Characters would have some very insightful thoughts, and then, BOOM, another reference to some pseudo-culture war language would take me straight out of the moment. The unnecessary poeticism for characters who didn’t seem to care all that much about the meaning of life was also very jarring.

“My eyes fossicked around the room trying to find him — they snagged on him next to the drinks, leaning into a massive set of shoulders, his hand on Adonis man’s ass … One moment he had his tongue in my mouth, and next he had his fingers practically inserted into Adonis man’s sphincter.”

In conclusion, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone unless you’re looking for a hate read to make fun of after. The commentary on social media, relationships and adulting was very underdeveloped and hollow. The characterisation was messy, tanking the book as it’s entirely character driven. It is also host to one of the most baffling and lacklustre ‘twists’ I’ve ever come across (Francesca’s name isn’t Francesca, it’s Fran. The entire book was building to that). Had there been more planning for what the story's message was meant to be, who these characters were meant to represent and how the interesting ‘thought-based’ structure was going to be used, it could’ve been a lot better. 

Rating: 1.5/5

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