Review: Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Dolly Alderton’s long-awaited debut novel is a perceptive and entertaining reflection on modern romance, female friendship and growing older. Acting almost as a fictional companion to her non-fiction memoir, Everything I Know About Love, released in 2018 to critical acclaim, Ghosts contemplates many of the themes which have earned Alderton her status as ‘the voice of the millennial generation’.

The book follows schoolteacher turned food writer Nina George Dean as she navigates life, love and loneliness throughout the year following her thirty-second birthday. After a recommendation from a friend and a time-sensitive desire to ‘put herself out there’, she downloads the dating app Linx, automatically matching and meeting someone who she begins a semi-serious relationship with. Inevitably, things don’t go quite according to plan, and the fallout from this forms the basis of the novel’s narrative. Combined with a story of her fragile relationship with one of her best and oldest friends, alongside her ageing father’s deteriorating health, Alderton brings Nina’s life to the page in a way which makes it impossible not to empathize with character and author both.

It’s difficult to say how much of this novel could be interpreted as autobiographical. Having already published a memoir, as well as recently announcing that she has moved on from writing about her personal life, this book is supposedly fictional. However, as I suspect is the case with a lot of debut novels, Alderton’s insightful introspection, embodied in her imagined characters, often feel as if it may be based on her own experiences. She makes references to her geographical background of suburban North London, an unnamed university which could easily be her alma mater Exeter and has previously spoken about some of the things that happen to Nina in the novel having happened to her. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and arguably all fiction holds some truth; if anything, it makes the reading experience more enjoyable.

At times in the book I found myself laughing out loud, but also becoming emotionally moved to the point of tears. From references to the Hampstead ladies’ pond in London, to the ‘Schadenfreude shelf’ that Nina and her friend Lola devise to make themselves feel better about their own lives, everything in this novel feels deliberately placed to shock and soothe in equal measure. The underlying question of this book seems to be: ‘what if you’re pinning all your hopes and planning your entire life on finding this one thing and then it disappoints you?’ Whether this is owning your own home, finally getting your dream job, achieving a perfect relationship; the pressures and expectations that millennial women face in this way does not necessarily always translate to how things actually turn out in reality. For Nina, and for Dolly too, perhaps indeed for all of us, this novel is intended to remind us that we are doing the best that we can, and no one can take that away from us.

Alderton is currently working on a second novel, also published by Fig Tree/Penguin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon learnt that this novel was being picked up for a TV adaptation by a major network. Her original and vivid character descriptions, along with a compelling storyline, would no doubt allow this novel a seamless transfer to the big screen. In the meantime, however, we will have to keep up to date by reading Alderton’s Sunday Times column and listening to The High Low podcast which she co-hosts with friend and fellow writer Pandora Sykes.

Esther Huntington-Whiteley

Featured Image Source: Esther Huntington-Whiteley

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