Illustration by Ben Beechener
Summer is finally here (Thank God!) and I can imagine that like me you are more than ready for some R&R. As ever though, I can imagine that none of us will be able to entirely escape work or uni for long this vac. What with struggles surrounding going abroad, BoJo’s delays and general aggravation this is probably not the time for me to be suggesting some beach-read trash. Instead, I offer you The Sunday Times Best Seller, Ghosts. Dolly Alderton’s most recent offering is relaxed enough to enjoy in the park or garden, but not so fluffy as to be relegated to a WH Smith airport rack.
Only published in October 2020, this book was one of the good things to come out of last year. Before you get unnecessarily invested, this is not a story about the supernatural. The reality is far from the mystical. The novel’s central ‘antagonist’ is the modern issue of ghosting; the sudden cutting off of communication without explanation or remorse. We will all know someone – if it is you, I am sorry – who has been ghosted. You might even know someone who has been the ghoster – if it is you, be ashamed. Alderton, previously a successful dating columnist, is unsurprisingly adept in describing the modern dating scene. Often, books struggle with the inclusion of phones, texting, and apps; it’s boring to read a message chain. But, she manages to negotiate this minefield throughout, giving us a believable account of dating, love, life, and rejection.
The novel centres around Nina Dean, a successful food writer in her thirties, and her ‘relationship’ with Max. Max is your archetypal romantic hero: handsome, charming, committed. To all intents and purposes, he is perfect, and with a loving family and great friends Nina’s life seems to be pretty good too. However, this would all be too easy, and would allow the book to slip into the realm of the beach-book. Instead we see her thoroughly middle-class parents struggling with getting old. Her friends growing up, moving to the suburbs (God forbid) and having children, while Nina is left alone to negotiate single life. Then to add insult to injury, Max manages to remove his existence from Nina’s life with such cutting efficiency that we all begin to question if he ever really existed. With hindsight his ‘perfection’ was too perfect, he was an image of a man constructed by a practiced serial monogamist. Alderton presents us with the façade of a man as flimsy as cardboard. Credit must be given to the book’s ability to draw us into his ploys on multiple occasions; we believe his sincerity, we long for his repentance, we foresee his long-term commitment.
The novel tracks through a year of Nina’s life, during which we get a full picture of the good and the bad. Alderton negotiates love, rejection, and frustration with ease and without neglect. She provides us with the soaring highs felt after a great first date, then a few pages later attacks us with the full force of how it feels watching someone with dementia slip away from you. There is delight to be taken from her descriptions – she has the rare ability of being able to capture the feel and tone of a person or group no matter the setting. Discussions between Nina and her parents would fit easily into most families’ supper conversations. Each character we encounter has a nuance to their speech that makes them easily identifiable so that Alderton does not have to work hard to get her point across. A well-placed word or a recurring phrase does as much to make us fall for Max, or become frustrated by Katherine and her caustic maturity, as an obtusely evident description or piece of dialogue. The whole effect maintains a mesmerising balance between subtlety and revelation, leaving us with a tender yet bitingly funny account of modern life.
It is no wonder the book is as wonderful as it is. Alderton first book, the autobiographical Everything I Know About Love (2018), traverses through romantic love, familial love, and the purest love of all: friendship. The book reminds us of our most basics bonds and how while everyone is seeking a partner, the thing that is most crucial to us all is platonic love and commitment. I am not ashamed to say that I spent much of the book in hysterics (both laughter and tears) – I would not recommend taking this book on a spa weekend for example, you will not have a relaxing time. Alderton’s talent for social commentary is seen here as she reflects upon life and love, and you will spend the entire book seeing your own friends and family in those described. If you have not already read Everything I Know About Love I beg that you do so this summer, once you have finished Ghosts of course. You will not be able to help but adore both.
Ghosts will provide you with everything you could ever want or need from a book this vac. Get ready to laugh and cry while you bask in the warmth of a beautiful written account of the trials and tribulations of a modern world without corona. In many respects it presents us with a reality so recently our own, and one we so long for in the future. If that isn’t a good way to escape reading lists and vac problem sheets, I don’t know what is. Then, after all of that, if you get the chance, give Everything I Know About Love a read – you might even find some hangover cures to help you survive when we’re finally free!
Illustration: Ben Beechener