Book Review: Dolly Alderton’s debut fiction ‘Ghosts’ says everything you’ve ever wanted to scream into the void of modern dating

Entertaining, snappy and witty, but with a heartfelt, emotional core, Alderton’s newest book, published by Penguin’s imprint, Fig Tree, hits a more considered, mature tone than her memoir. Less wholesome than Gilmore Girls but with that same referential, irreverent and quick humour, ‘Ghosts’ is an etiquette and survival guide for being thirty and dealing with other people in their thirties. What we loved in her first books remains in this second one: her keen observance of people’s behaviours, particularly men and her love of the outrageous, shunning anything close to the traditional like the plague and truthfully? We wouldn’t have her any other way.

Belfast Telegraph. (2020) Dolly Alderton. 

At first, it seems as if Alderton’s protagonist, Nina’s character has been entirely constructed from that meme page ‘Just Girly Things’ in her relatability – listening to podcasts about female serial killers, going on a ‘promiscuity spree’ which means sleeping with three men and trying to make all of them her boyfriend. But as the story unfolds, with an ailing father, deep reflections on the pitfalls of dating in technological world and the distance that occurs between friends in their thirties, we begin to there is a lot more to Nina than her carefully defensive wittiness.

Whereas her memoir focused on what friendships are like in their twenties, ‘Ghosts’ focuses on the widening gulfs that occur between friends as they move on to different phases of their lives at different times. Friendships become fraught with little annoyances, little put downs, as Alderton critiques the ‘perfect mummy’ culture, the impossible woman who always has a proper meal cooked, a yoga class attended and never allows screen time. As Nina’s best friend, Katherine, finds herself engulfed in this world, Nina feels further away from her than ever. The exclusive mummy club, that prides itself on their effectiveness and exclusivity, requires hardship and children for entry, meaning Nina -who has spent the last few years focusing on her career after the breakup of a seven-year relationship – is out. This accumulation of obstacles and old disagreements builds up and the rising pressure throughout the novel keep you as glued to it as the friendships, humour and romance does.

‘I wished more than anything that I could buy a durex for her heart.’

The real star of the show, however, is the Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City-esque observations about modern dating. We follow Nina and her ‘Only Single Friend’ Lola, as they download dating apps, trying to work out the ‘science’ of them, obsessing over the algorithm and discussing conspiracy theories about catfishing and what profiles constitute ‘girlfriend material’. And in typical Dolly Alderton fashion, she renders this age-old conversation between friends of attempting to understand men, into something hilarious and yet also contemplative and fresh. She interrogates the allowances women make for men, fetishizing their bodily failings as ‘dad bods’ and ‘silver foxes’, while men are repulsed by the same characteristics of aging in women, using the app settings to filter out women over thirty, despite being over that age themselves.

This is perhaps not so much a survival guide for dating in your thirties as it is a rallying cry to women that dating over thirty is only fun for men. The power, control and politics of intensity play out in these pages – why does he get to say ‘I think I want to marry you’ on first date and it’s romantic, but if she did the same it would be clingy, crazy, or too forward? She disparages the games and tricks needed to ‘lure’ men in, to ‘make them’ want you – keep him interested, don’t text back for two hours after he texts you – all of the advice you’re sick of hearing, but desperately hoping, that this time, maybe it will work as you imagine a life together. This book holds a mirror up to women to show them their own value, all that they offer and questions, why then, do men hold all the power, when women give them ‘a story, a weekend away, their attention, their advice, their time, a sexual adventure, an actual adventure – then they’d be forced to pass him along to the next relationship. These men would emerge at some point, full of all the love and care and confidence that had been bestowed upon them over the years and they might commit to someone…their greed would not be satisfied by one woman, by one life. They’d get to lead a great many lives.’

And amongst this critique of modern love, you feel you stomach fall and your heart break alongside her and this vivid, decisive cast of characters. You’re peering over their shoulders at their phones, staring at the time that the text was sent, the hours or even days it took him to respond versus the minutes it took her. My chest twisted at the memories, because we have all been there. Almost every young woman I know has been ghosted. Talking to someone constantly, right down to knowing their colleague’s names and where they had dinner that evening, to suddenly falling flat. No response. A few missed calls. Messages seen, not responded to. The inkling that something is wrong, but tracing back through the messages and not knowing what. Did they not like that you asked how their day was? Was it that third ‘x’ instead of the usual one or two, between you? The over analysis, the sense of being left hanging, the lack of closure and explanation, literally haunts the ghost-ee, stuck on the idea of the person, of what the relationship might have been. If anything, this book highlights that there are many perks to having modern technology. Right now, especially, we can see and hear from our loved ones at the push of a button. But the dark side of that ease it that we know how easy it is to get in contact. So why hasn’t he?

“‘Do you really want that from these men? Their attention?’

No,’ she said.

What do you want?

Their love.’”

This book poses the questions that come up at any good pre-drinks, a small group of best mates, right before the G&Ts really hit you hard. You discuss the nitty gritty, with the people who have the most intimate knowledge of you and all your past loves and failings. When Alderton looks into the female experience and articulates it with compassion and just a bit of bite, is when her writing is strongest. This is the book for your friend who is sick of dating apps but can’t sum up why, who feels the inequality of her relationships but can’t escape the endless cycle of ghosting, who controls and measures her responses and waits three hours to text back, but the magic formula never works and she is sick of it. Give her this book. Give her this interpretation of our modern times, grab a G&T and know that in a world where there is ‘a lack of duty to one another now’, Alderton advises, be dutiful to your friendships, your goals and most importantly, yourself.

Available to buy here.


Review by Fiona Murphy – follow her on Twitter here