Ghosts by Dolly Alderton
Published by Fig Tree Books on 15th October
Available from all Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Nina Dean has arrived at her early thirties as a successful food writer with loving friends and family, plus a new home and neighbourhood. When she meets Max, a beguiling romantic hero who tells her on date one that he’s going to marry her, it feels like all is going to plan.
A new relationship couldn’t have come at a better time – her thirties have not been the liberating, uncomplicated experience she was sold. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of time passing and opportunities dwindling. Friendships are fading, ex-boyfriends are moving on and, worse, everyone’s moving to the suburbs. There’s no solace to be found in her family, with a mum who’s caught in a baffling mid-life makeover and a beloved dad who is vanishing in slow-motion into dementia.
Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is funny and tender, filled with whip-smart observations about relationships, family, memory, and how we live now.
What I Say
In 1992, when I was 21 years old, I thought that I was going out with the man of my dreams. We had met through some voluntary work I was doing while at Leeds Uni, and he seemed to me to be perfect.
At the time I ignored the fact he didn’t turn up when he said he would, understood how he was always working and that’s why he was never in when I called (these are the days long before mobile phones), and brushed aside the fact that our ‘dates’ lasted no longer than a couple of hours at best. One day he dropped me off at my new house share in Leeds, carefully took (and repeated back!) my new number, promised to call me later and I never saw or heard from him again. That was until I saw him in a Leeds pub with his new girlfriend, and watched the colour drain from his face as he hurried them out of the door.
Six months after the last time I saw him, broken hearted, devastated and with my self confidence in pieces, I went to my friends house for dinner, to discover that they had set me up on a blind date.
Twenty eight years later, and married still to my Blind Date, it was the best dinner party I’ve been to.
The reason I wanted to share that story, is because Dolly Alderton’s first novel Ghosts resonated with me completely. It perfectly captures not only what it feels like when someone ‘ghosts’ you, but also shows how difficult it is to navigate your way through the unexpected demands of adult life when everyone and everything else around you seems to be so organised and settled.
Nina Dean is a food writer who is starting the next phase of her life by moving into a new flat after breaking up with her long term boyfriend Joe. With the encouragement of her quite frankly fabulous (I loved her!) friend Lola, Nina decides to start online dating, and meets Max.
As they tentatively start a relationship, Dolly perfectly captures the delicious anticipation of the first meeting, the first kiss and the long, perfect conversations to try and learn everything about each other as Nina and Max become closer. While Nina starts her relationship with Max, she is also aware that Katherine, her oldest friend, as well as physically moving away, is emotionally becoming distant from her as Katherine deals with the reality of the not always Instaperfect grind of motherhood.
Their once unbreakable bond is starting to fracture, as Nina and Katherine are taking different paths, and neither can fully understand or appreciate what the other is dealing with. Nina finds this hard, and doesn’t want to lose her best friend, but feels that they have less and less in common. Katherine is occupied with her husband, daughter Olive, and being pregnant, while Nina is trying to maintain her career, have a relationship with Max, and deal with what is happening with her parents.
Nina and her Mum Nancy – who has decided she now wants to be called Mandy, in a never ending quest to live her life to the fullest, are having to come to terms with the fact that Nina’s Dad Bill, who was a well loved and respected teacher, is facing the reality of life with dementia. Dolly writes so insightfully and knowingly about the impact of dementia on a family. The creeping realisation of the strain of caring for someone 24 hours a day, and the grieving process you have to go through for the future that you never wanted anyway, elevated Ghosts to another level completely for me.
Nina and Nancy have not been close for a long time, and they know that they have to attempt to connect with each other as they try to navigate this unforeseen life. They have to face the fact that the man who has created so many memories for them and countless others is now increasingly becoming frustrated and bewildered by a world he no longer recognises – and for the reader it is just as heartbreaking to read. I wondered if the title Ghosts was also about the idea that as we grow up, there are times that people can no longer be truly fully present in our lives, and that all we have are the memories of what they once were.
As Nina tries to come to terms with what her dad is going through, the fact that Joe is now happily in another relationship with Lucy, and the publisher’s rejection of her latest book, she believes at least she has a relationship.
Until one day Max simply disappears.
Nina’s attempts to contact him come to nothing, and suddenly the future she believed she was going to have, has been denied by the one person she wanted to share it with.
What worked so well for me about this novel was that Dolly writes such real and believable characters. I felt such empathy with Nina as she tries to process what has happened, and that is because I really liked her. When Lola is ghosted too by her boyfriend Jethro, who has promised to marry her, Nina visits him and in her anger at his betrayal, she perfectly articulates the difference in how men and women are allowed and expected to behave in relationships. That scene works so well and makes such an impact- because it’s true.
Max’s eventual reappearance and remorse for disappearing from Nina’s life, could in a lesser writers hands have been clichéd and formulaic. As Nina comes to terms with what Max has done and what their future holds (no, I’m not going to tell you, read the book!), she has to make decisions about their relationship and her life and Dolly uses the plot and our connection to Nina to do this perfectly – because she makes you really care about all the people in the novel.
The pace and narrative is natural and moves along at just the right speed. There are numerous brilliant observations and scenes which depict the horrors of hen dos, the difference as to how men and women prepare for weddings, and how they deal with parenthood. Ghosts is filled with so many funny and relatable scenes about families and relationships that I just wanted to underline paragraphs and pages to come back to.
Ghosts is a novel not only about the ever shifting social minefield that is the changing friendships and relationships as we get older, but is also a perfectly pitched and tender exploration as to the demands and stresses that a family has to go through when someone you love so deeply is becoming a ghost of their former selves. Dolly Alderton writes with total clarity and insight about love, family and the fear and ultimately grief you have to endure when a family member slips away from you in front of your eyes.
Ghosts undoubtedly for me is that very rare thing – a novel I absolutely didn’t want to end.
I completely loved it, and it will be one of my #MostSelfishReads2020.
Thank you so much to Hannah Sawyer at Fig Tree for my gifted proof copy in exchange for an honest review.