Dolly Alderton’s debut novel opens in London on the 32nd birthday of its narrator Nina Dean, a food writer. After an impeccably poached egg (a skill Nina is proud to have honed to perfection, along with meticulous punctuality and being adept at dodging small talk at parties), Nina spends the day doing the sort of stuff she loves most – pottering around her newly acquired flat, strolling on Hampstead Heath, listening to her iTunes playlist in the bath – before birthday drinks with friends.
aving been single for two years Nina is ready to get back on the dating scene. And so encouraged her singleton buddy Lola, she downloads a dating app where she clicks with Max, a free-spirited accountant who lives in Clapton and grows vegetables in an allotment near his flat.
Online chit-chat reveals shared interests, experiences and beliefs: the Beach Boys provided the soundtrack to their childhoods; they both love churches and hate religion; agree that strawberry is the best and most underrated ice-cream flavour; and have Mexico, Iceland and Nepal on their travel wish lists.
Even before they meet up, Nina is seriously smitten; an hour into their first date, she is so taken by his face in profile she wants to put it on a coin. After several gins and tequila shots, they go dancing in a basement club and share takeaway chips on a park bench; and before they part company, Max takes her face in his hands and solemnly declares that he’s going to marry her.
There follows a romantic whirlwind of texts, wine-and-olive picnics and snogging sessions in the back-row seats of cinemas.
Then suddenly… nothing. Nina’s texts to Max go unanswered. Ditto phone calls. In online dating parlance, she’s been ghosted. Meanwhile, other aspects of Nina’s life are under pressure as her once razor-sharp father slips slowly into dementia, while her determinedly youthful mother distracts herself with amateur dramatics and clubs with names like ‘Mingle and Mindfulness’.
Her now very much married-with-children best friend Katherine has moved to the suburbs and no longer has time for her. And the increasingly weird owner of the flat directly below hers insists on playing heavy metal music late at night, dumping all manner of household rubbish in the communal recycling bin and getting machetes and meat hooks in the post.
A renowned journalist, broadcaster and author, Alderton’s prose and observations are a delight. For Nina, “being a heterosexual woman who loved men meant being a translator for their emotions, a palliative nurse for their pride and a hostage negotiator for their egos”.
The converted warehouse apartment of a man who ghosted Lola is “filled with the essential props of a try-hard renaissance man” who “had bought his entire personality from a cobbled side-road of boutiques in Shoreditch”.
The plight of Nina’s father, whose face at his most recent birthday “looked as if the plug that connected him to the world had been yanked out of its socket” is also exquisitely and devastatingly portrayed.
The conclusion to this wonderful debut novel is as subtle as it is satisfying. No fatuous happy-ever-afters here – it’s much too clever for that.
Sunday Indo Living