Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Published by Penguin                                                                                        

When a blonde haired, 6-foot-tall noted glamazonian writer’s heroine is a petite brunette uninterested in her appearance, it raises suspicions that the writer doth protest too much. There are more similarities between the two than superficial differences, with inversions, such as those ones, to distinguish the two.

When we’re introduced to Nina Dean she’s in the process of writing her debut cookbook, which is a follow up to the surprise success of her first book, a cookbook/memoir hybrid. Anyone who’s familiar with Dolly Alderton’s work will know that her first published book was also a memoir interspersed with recipes. Not quite the same, but close enough.

This is the first split between author and protagonist; Alderton goes the way of the novel while Nina focuses on the cooking side. Nina is doing very well in her professional life; the proceeds from her first book have allowed her to give up her teaching job to concentrate on her writing full time, and also to buy her first flat (a little like someone whose name rhymes with Polly Halderton), but is single and looking (*cough* Dolly *cough*).

Nina joins a dating app and is soon on a date with a man who seems too good to be true. He’s perfect for her, and the direct opposite to the ex that she’s still on good terms with. They have a real connection, lots in common as well as plenty to learn from each other and everything is going just great. Until his communication with her fizzles to a dribble, then a drip, then a complete and utter stop.

She’s been ghosted, the cruel and cowardly process of breaking up with someone not by a civil discussion or even a blow-out argument, but by ceasing all communication, usually out of the blue. Any attempts by the injured party to reach out by phone, text, social media or carrier pigeon are stubbornly ignored.

As well as being unceremoniously dumped, Nina is dealing with her father’s descent into dementia, which is a whole story of its own. Dementia has become this generation’s writer’s terminal cancer, it seems, providing an opportunity to philosophise about life, the meaning of it and what it is that makes a person a personality.

It’s mostly sensitively approached but can feel a little like a handy plot device. Alderton handles it well (despite not having a parent succumbing to the condition), from the symptoms of denial her mother is exhibiting to the mother and daughter pair’s floundering over how to deal with the complicated and distressing situation.

The mother also provides some comic relief, as does Nina’s friend Lola. Both are familiar popular fiction tropes; there’s a distinct homage to Bridget Jones’s mother and Lola is an outrageous dresser with a sweet heart who is unlucky in love, and willing to share all the gory details of her failed relationships.

Katherine, Nina’s oldest friend, is also a bit of a stock character. She is married with two children and thinking about moving from the suburbs to the countryside, and is so preoccupied with her family life that she dismisses her single friends’ concerns as trivial.

While the overall theme of the book is modern, and references current technology and ways of life – there is a transcribed text conversation that is so toe-curlingly authentic that it made me physically cringe, and a vividly realised hen party from hell that’s right on the nose – Ghosts is at its heart a book that could have been written in the mid-90s.

Alderton herself is relatively old-fashioned by comparison to today’s early 30 somethings, and could easily have been plucked from an episode of a pre-millennium BBC sitcom featuring plummy British actors daring to speak about sleeping around while smoking indoors and quaffing Chardonnay.

I don’t particularly consider this a bad thing, but it feels like a throwback to a different time. I found the resolution of the ongoing conflict between Nina and her volatile neighbour Angelo quite problematic, and not something I’d expect to read in the woke era of 2020.

Ghosts takes a while to get into its stride, but when it does it’s an enjoyable read. There are touches of real introspection and humour, which save it from its lengthier passages that take too long to get anywhere. It’s ultimately something to pass the time, but won’t be haunting your thoughts for long after finishing.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 11 11 20

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