Dolly Alderton exited her 20s with her best-selling memoir, Everything I Know About Love, in which she writes about female friendships keeping her grounded. In Alderton’s debut novel, protagonist Nina notes that her friend only reads “overhyped memoirs written by women under thirty having feeble epiphanies about themselves”. If this is having your cake and eating it too, then Alderton – dating columnist, agony aunt, podcaster – does it in style.
Ghosts documents a year in the life of Nina, a 32-year-old London food writer who, after a couple of years of being “inactively single”, downloads a dating app. The novel’s pages are full of sharp, wry opinions not just about the online dating world but about the nature of relationships for millennials. “There were graphic designers – Jesus, there were so many graphic designers.”
Nina meets Max, who is almost too good to be true, and their relationship is the crux here, but there are multiple dramas, including Nina’s father’s dementia and her dealings with her antisocial neighbour. On top of this, her oldest friend, Katherine, is moving out of London to Surrey. “I know you have all those opinions about Surrey,” Katherine says, and Nina’s denial is unconvincing.
Alderton manages to depict both the mind-numbing boredom of being the friend of someone with a small child, and the exhausted tedium of being that parent (“all I am at the moment is a mother”). Paragraphs are full of pithy observations as adults split off into those partnered and those still partying, those without kids and those with “the superior trump card of motherhood”, those still living in the city and those moving out.
Midway through the book is a hens’ weekend straight out of Black Books, described in biting prose that would sound larger than life if it weren’t so true. Alderton skewers the narcissism of enforced amusements that are the result of months spent planning the best ways to celebrate yourself, with games such as the Knicker Game, where the bride-to-be has to guess which guest bought her which of the underpants she pulls from a box. Nina is having none of it.
Perhaps with the exception of her ex-boyfriend, Nina’s father is the only decent guy here. There are asides about “the sort of expectant father who refers to the birth as a joint venture”, and all the millennial men, married and single, act like children. Ultimately, while this is a tightly structured, well-paced, rollickingly funny story, make no mistake: it is also cutting social commentary.
Fig Tree, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2020 as "Dolly Alderton, Ghosts".
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