Good morning. I hope this finds you well, wherever you are. I’m imagining you in a window seat, bored of the commute home. Perhaps you’re on a slightly chilly picnic that you don’t want to be at, distracting yourself on your phone. Maybe you’re a literary agent headhunting young talent (please hire me). Whatever your vice, hello from me in leafy Somerset.
I’m going to start putting up reviews of books, films, art exhibitions and the like, which I think worth writing about. Hopefully they’ll make you smile, or at least say ‘hmm’ in a thoughtful and pensive way. Hopefully they won’t make you splutter your tea all over your lap.
First up is Everything I know about Love, by Dolly Alderton. Dolly (what else to call her?) does not, as she makes clear, grow up entirely gracefully. The novel gets its ‘zing’ from a central conflict between horror at, and eventual acceptance of, a life measured out with coffee spoons (or ‘Tottenham Court Road and Ordering Shit Off Amazon’ as she puts it in one particularly angst-ridden chapter). The book concludes rather satisfyingly (at least for a single, 20-something reader) with Dolly’s realisation that ‘love’ appears in all sorts of ways and that you don’t need Romantic love to make you happy. In the meantime though, chaos ensues and the novel is littered with a truly magnificent profusion of bad dates and crazy exploits. Two that spring to mind are taking a taxi from Oxford Street at 2am to visit an ex-boyfriend in Leamington Spa, and having a two week fling over the phone with a relationship guru before meeting once and never speaking again. It came as a total surprise to me, reading the dust cover when already halfway through, that it’s actually a memoir. Jilly Cooper dreams of writing this stuff.
Now for a little digression. How do you write a story? The caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland advises us to start at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop. This is sage advice, particularly because it neatly maps onto how we experience life first time round. However as soon as we start to look back at it, things become a bit scrambled. ITV brought it out rather well in the court scene of Quiz (aired last week). Major Ingram’s barrister is faced with the tricky task of proving that ‘the coughing Major’ didn’t cheat on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, when everyone wants to believe he did. In the third and final episode she surveys the jury. They have been listening to the infamous ‘tape G’, which seems to show a pronounced, dry cough (O tempora O mores) each time the Major says the correct answer. Very fishy, no doubt, unless, as she eloquently describes, this tape G has been tailored to fit the claimant’s narrative; each time we remember something it is not the original we are remembering, but rather the last time we remembered it. Memory is inherently shifting and unstable. Derrida has something to say on this too, but that’s for another time.
Anyway, this quality of memory wasn’t enough to acquit Major Ingrams or his wife, but Dolly uses the idea to great effect to map the ebbs and flows of her life. Everything I Know about Love‘s narrative is largely chronological. Chapter 1 is called ‘Everything I Knew About Love As A Teenager’ and by the close we have tracked through Dolly’s teenage years and early and middle 20s. The memoir draws to a conclusion with the brilliant chapters ‘Enough’ (complete with a ‘Christmas Special’ no-strings hookup) and ‘Everything I Know About Love At Twenty-Eight’, which ironically deflates the first chapter’s assumptions.
The simple chronology is however disrupted with excerpts from dates that have gone horribly wrong, with clippings from her diary, text message exchanges or hilarious eviscerations of parodic invitations to hen-do’s and baby showers invitations. Sometimes again the narrative seems to stutter, to be interrupted, and then to loop back on itself so that you as reader aren’t quite sure exactly where on the Mobius strip of Dolly’s life you are. This has one particular benefit. You are simply not allowed to become bored. At a deeper level it mimics Dolly’s experiences. For example, the chapter about her best friend’s little sister’s diagnosis with leukemia, set disjunctively within the rest of the narrative, really does seem to have put a stutter in her life.
This mixture of light and shade, also at the heart of Dolly’s podcast ‘The High-Low’, is what I most enjoyed about the book. One would be hard pushed not to find something in common with her. The themes of love, filial and romantic, and experiences of serious mental and physical illness, which she conveys with her natural lightness of tone even while being very serious, are universal. In particular, Dolly’s attempts as a student (and grad) to drink life to the lees sound a real hoot, at least initially. The novel then turns on showing Dolly’s escapades becoming increasingly desperate, escapist and out of control. The subsequent scenes with her therapist are exceptionally candid. Likewise her descriptions of friends rallying round when her best friend’s wedding is first postponed, and later cancelled, are about a lot more than the ‘happily ever after’ her teenage self thinks is ‘the most important and exciting thing in the entire world’.