When we meet Hera, the narrator of Madeleine Gray’s debut novel Green Dot, she’s a 24-year-old with three arts degrees, living with her dad in Sydney, about to start a job as a comment moderator at a soulless news site with an over-air-conditioned office, and struggling to figure out the point of it all. A salvation from this millennial search for meaning comes in the form of Arthur, a much older, married, senior journalist at her new job, with who she enters into a doomed affair. (We know it’s doomed – she tells us at the start.)

Green Dot could easily be pegged as a “sad girl novel”, a nebulous term that’s been pinned to everything from Sally Rooney’s Normal People to My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. And it’s this topic that Gray will discuss alongside fellow author Jessie Tu (A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing), critic Neha Kale and Guardian Australia opinion editor Bridie Jabour as part of Why So Sad, Girl, a panel at All About Women at Sydney Opera House in March that will attempt to tackle the pervasiveness of this categorisation and why it actually exists.

But is Green Dot a “sad girl novel” at all?

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“I personally wouldn’t classify it as a sad girl novel, because I find that genre characterisation reductive and flattening for women writers,” Gray tells Broadsheet over a Zoom call from London, where she’s promoting her book. “I definitely see why it’s a genre term that has kicked off, because clearly so many people are reading books about female protagonists who are upset with the ways that capitalism modulates our lives.

“I don’t think we would ever call men ‘sad boys’. It’s very much a double standard that I think we’ll be discussing at the event.”

While sadness trickles throughout the book – the sadness of loving someone who won’t or can’t fully commit to you, the sadness of modern life, the sadness of moving countries right as a global pandemic hits – a rich of seam of humour forms the backbone of Green Dot. When asked at a job interview what animal she would be, if she were an animal, Hera’s response is acutely timed and unexpectedly hilarious: “I’d be a meerkat … because I am both sneaky and vindictive”. Reader, she does not get the job.

Adding to the levity is Gray’s knack for the in-jokes and dialogue between close friends, and she plucks pop culture references – spanning the famous Jehovah’s Witness scene from Black Books, Margaret Pomeranz from At the Movies and the college admissions scandal – from across the decades and sprinkles them throughout. Even the narrator’s name is a knowing reversal of nominative determinism: Hera is the Greek goddess of marriage.

“I wrote it in lockdown, and I was living by myself,” says Gray. “I absolutely wrote it just to make myself laugh … But, I would mostly just write a line, cackle to myself, have a glass of wine and think, ‘God, you’re hilarious, Maddie’.”

There’s even fun to be had in the genre and narrative arc itself. Gray – who is also a book critic – knows better than most that the literary canon is awash with affair novels. So, she rejoices in playing with, and sometimes flipping, those tropes.

“Affairs are the juiciest possible relationship thing to untangle in a novel because disrespecting monogamy is like the last taboo in our society,” Gray says. “And if someone’s going to break that taboo, they’re going to have really compelling emotional reasons for doing so because otherwise it would not be worth it to their mind. I certainly thought, ‘I love the genre and I think I can do something different with it’.”

For a start, Hera has only ever dated women before, so there’s a kind of glee to be found in watching as she unpicks and not-as-ironically-as-she-thinks embraces the stereotypes of a heterosexual relationship.

Another author with an affair novel is Anne Enright. The Booker-winning Irish author will also be on stage at All About Women in a conversation moderated by Gray that will dip into Enright’s latest book, The Wren, The Wren – and likely much else besides.

“I just want to know if she and [Scottish author] Ali Smith hang out,” says Gray. “If there’s this club of amazing Celtic women writers who get together, and how can I join it?”

All About Women is at Sydney Opera House on March 10. Green Dot is available in bookstores now.