Dolly Alderton, 2020
‘When will this all end? I just want someone nice to go to the cinema with.’
The above line was the most heartbreakingly depressing moment in Dolly Alderton’s first novel, Ghosts. It promised ‘whip-smart observations about relationships, family, memory, and how we live now.’ What it presented – to me, a 21-year-old female reader – was a thoroughly depressing vision of the future.
Yes, there were funny moments, lovable characters to root for, relatability by the bucketload. But the overall message, and main takeaway, was ‘modern dating is shit’ – and despite an attempt at a happy ending, this novel left a pessimistic taste in my mouth.
To begin with, seeing the story through the eyes of the narrator, Nina, was like looking through whatever the opposite of rose-tinted glasses is. The only people she gets along with are her father and her Only Single Friend (the capitalisation is the novel’s, not mine). She openly despises her best and oldest friend for 80% of the novel. Likewise, she bickers constantly with her mother, forever criticising rather than emphasising. Her ex-boyfriend, who she remains friends with, is mocked as a lame boy-next-door with a dad-bod. His new girlfriend is, of course, a figure of infinite derision.
This sense of bitterness manifested itself several times across the novel. When Lola, the single friend, got a boyfriend, she morphed dramatically from Nina’s partner-in-crime into yet another insufferable loved-up friend. She is ‘gleeful’, ‘relishes mundane details’, makes ‘tenuous links’. Nina says ‘it would have been churlish of me not to allow it.’ But while Lola gets let off the hook, we readers hear every word of Nina’s sarcastic narration, littered with ironic exaggeration. Jethro ‘nods with knowing gravitas’, the couple ‘finish each other’s sentences so smoothly it felt choreographed.’
I felt irritated that Alderton cheapened Nina and Lola’s friendship to this level. It felt as if there was no relationship in Nina’s life that was valued above ridicule. Seeing through Nina’s eyes certainly painted the story in a light that was as pessimistic as it was dryly amusing. When sat in a bar with her ex-boyfriend Joe, she points out the ‘dark, downy hair of his belly visible through the gaps [between shirt buttons]’ to us. She makes this remark about her best friend Katherine:
I think she felt that my decision to search for a relationship was once-removed approval of her choice to get married and have a baby. I’d noticed this was a thing people did when they got into their thirties: they saw every personal decision you made as a direct judgement on their life.
This observation is quite ironic, because Nina is overly critical of her friends’ life choices. Friends with boyfriends, like Lola, are irritating. Friends with children, like Katherine, are self-absorbed and boring. Women with large friendship groups ‘exhibit moral superiority from simply having a weekly brunch with each other.’
I think that when Pandora Sykes, Alderton’s co-host on The High Low podcast, joking referred to this novel as “Everything I Know About Ghosts”, she unironically hit the nail on the head. Lola’s rapid character change is an excellent example of this. Lola becomes an illustration of ‘what happens when friends get boyfriends’. The line ‘Lola told me she’d call me to arrange dinner that week. I knew she wouldn’t’, was reminiscent of the ‘don’t say “nothing will change.” Everything will change’ passage in Everything I Know About Love. Similarly, the hen do chapter, while amusing, seemed recycled from the parody hen do / baby shower invitations in Everything. Wheeling the same material out again felt tired and catty. The fact that Lucy and all her friends were all cariacatures of ‘genres of women’ added to the sense that Ghosts was written with a bitterness which should have been purged in the writing of Everything.
It didn’t help that Nina was very similar to Alderton, despite some superficial attempts to make her different. She might be short, dark-haired and always on time, but she was also the same age as Alderton, a professional writer whose first book was a hit, grew up in the suburbs of London, and recently moved into her own flat, alone, for the first time. And neither are in a relationship (at least, Dolly has remarked within the last year on the podcast that she’s single).
I felt as though this book aimed to be more of a portrait of an ‘everywoman’ situation, rather than an immersion inside a unique character and their storyline. Nina’s personality and life situation felt quite generic. Perhaps this was meant to make the novel more widely relatable, but I think it turned the book into a series of ‘observations’ which meant that every character and their life choices existed to be critically examined and wittily commented upon, leading to a sense of moral superiority.
This superiority was most noticeable during the early section of the book which dealt with Nina’s relationship with Max. It took a while to warm to Nina because for the first third of the book she kept contrasting the early-days excitement and spontaneity of hers and Max’s relationship with the staleness of her friends’ long-term ones. Of course, the whole point was that Max was too good to be true, but as it took over a hundred pages for Nina to receive this comeuppance, I think she and I got off on the wrong foot. I was probably meant to feel sorry for her when she got ghosted, but instead I felt glad that Nina was going to come down from her high horse. That’s not a nice feeling to have about a main character, and I’m not sure it was the intended one. The ghosting should have come a lot earlier in the plot to avoid this confusion about where our sympathies should lie.
‘He told me he wanted to marry me on our first date. Can you imagine what would have happened if a woman had said that on a first date? He would have alerted the authorities. Why does he get to say that? Why does he get to be the one in charge of saying “I love you” first, then ghost me?’
I would sum this book up as a confusion of emotions and attitudes towards love, relationships, marriage and children, which came across – to me, at least – as quite bitter. But maybe I’m not the right audience. Someone in a similar situation to Dolly and/or Nina would probably say that the author captured a complicated mixture of emotions – perhaps including, most importantly, the difficulty of NOT sounding bitter – very well.
Ghosts left me with a couple of interesting observational nuggets to take forward. I enjoyed Alderton’s exploration of why Lucy – and all her friends, who symbolise an ‘entire genre of woman’ (basic, without intellectual depth, not as emotionally complex as Nina and Lola, ‘I’m trying to remember what Joe and I talked about when we were together, and I can’t imagine him and Lucy having the same conversations’, etc) – found it easier to ‘hold onto a man’ and get them to marry, have children, celebrate ‘monthaversaries’:
How did these women do it? What was their secret? What unexpected, mystical orifice on their body did they allow these men entry to that made them do whatever unreasonable thing they wanted? Or was it that they simply told them what to do and when to do it, and the imposed restriction of choice made their boyfriends feel safely shepherded rather than ready for slaughter? Had I been treating men too much like adults and not enough like directionless lambs?
One of the main explanations of ghosting which the novel offers is that men enjoy seeking instant gratification and have no biological time pressure to settle down until they feel like it. Nina’s mother says: ‘In my day, you’d say “I’ll meet you outside Woolworths at seven,” and if you weren’t outside Woolworths at seven, you’d leave the other person standing in the cold. And it was unthinkable to do that to someone. I blame all this constant communication, everything has become too casual.’ Nina’s reply? ‘Why were you going on a date to Woolworths?’ It’s just one example of when she was needlessly hostile to her mum. But she does at least listen to Lola’s thoughts on the same subject:
‘They weren’t conditioned to develop any sense of honour and duty in adolescence the way our fathers were. PlayStations replaced parenting. They were taught to look for fun, complete the fun, then get to the next level, switch players or try a new game. They need maximum stimulation all the time.’
The ending of the novel was surprisingly dark. I would even call the sex scene with Angelo disturbing in its suggestion that Nina had become so psychologically damaged that what turned her on the most was knowing that Angelo would be unable to ghost her. Similarly, the last chapter ended with Nina debating redownloading Lynx, ‘the screen [shining] with bring uncertainty.’ It was an open ending with a chilling hint at an addictive cycle – strung along by the possibility of love, repeatedly getting hurt.
…And then an epilogue was lumped on the end, an epilogue reminiscent of that bit at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which shows all the characters brought harmoniously together, enjoying a slice of happy normality. There’s still uncertainty about Nina’s future, but it felt as though Alderton feared leaving the novel on too downbeat a note. A shame. I thought this novel would have been so much stronger if it leant into its own dark undercurrents more. The ‘depressing vision of the future’ aspect I noted at the beginning of this review reminded me of The New Me by Halle Butler, which I heard recommended on The High Low. That novel was truly unafraid to offer something thoroughly pessimistic, and the result was chilling.
But perhaps something dark and depressing wouldn’t have had the same wide commercial appeal? As it was, I thought that Ghosts walked a fine line between literary fiction and commercial women’s fiction. Its subject matter and marketing (pieces in The Sunday Times, interviews on Woman’s Hour and Radio 2’s Steve Wright) were tailored more towards the genre of commercial women’s fiction, but the classy cover design and aforementioned dark undercurrent leant more towards the literary.
It must also be noted that the writing style was decidedly more commercial than literary. Barry Pierce’s review for The Irish Times went viral, in which he wrote ‘there are just so many words in this novel. During a time where spare, concise and unadorned prose seems to rule the roost, Alderton must be hailed as a brash iconoclast.’ His point is clear: Alderton’s writing style excludes her from a literary kingdom in which Sally Rooney is queen. I have to agree with his assessment; there were so many huge chunky paragraphs and too many similes to stomach, particularly in this noticeable extract:
His lids hung heavy over his eyes like a pair of half-drawn venetian blinds.
‘Yes. Hello,’ I replied.
‘You here to see Vivian?’ he asked. I could see the chewing gum roll around his mouth like a ball in a lottery draw machine.
‘Come this way,’ he said, jerking his head to beckon me. He barely picked up his feet and shuffled towards the lift like his shoes were cardboard boxes.
Don’t get me wrong, Ghosts was an enjoyable enough read, and I read it in indulgent gulps of time, letting the word soup wash over me. I just don’t know if I’ll return to it, the way I know I’ll return to Everything I Know About Love again and again and again. I suppose I found the confusion in tone unsatisfying, and there was a little too much hostility towards all the other female characters, which I found surprising and disappointing. I think that leaning into the haunting, pessimistic themes would have helped this book to pack more of an emotional punch, without necessarily alienating the commercial market.