Book Review: Ghosts by Dolly Alderton (2020)

Nina is a 32-year-old food writer who’s at a point in her life where everything is slowly changing around her. She’s one of the last in her friendship group to be single whilst her best friend is married and expecting a second child. Her mother is getting really involved with various trends and her father is suffering from dementia. On the night of her 32nd birthday, Nina sets up a profile on an online dating website and starts talking with Max. At the end of their first date Max tells Nina that he will marry her (YES, I know, that’s what we commonly call a big old red flag 🚩). They date for a few months and gradually Max disappears from Nina’s life…

Like most millennial women, I love The High Low podcast (which sadly ended last week) and its two host, Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton. I think they’re both funny and I like the way they think. I read Dolly’s memoir Everything I Know About Love a couple of years ago, but I did not like it. To be honest, I never finished it and ended up donating it to my local charity shop so that someone could give it some love. I know this has been very popular and many women could relate to Dolly’s early life, but I really could not bear to read it further. I liked the writing style but Alderton’s experience is too far remote from my own experience, and I really do struggle reading about people who stubbornly choose to do the wrong thing – and there was also way too much drinking, which is fair enough for her but a personal trigger for me. This book made me so angry, I thought it’d be wiser to stop reading it. Nonetheless, I really like Dolly Alderton and her writing so I was really excited to read her debut novel, Ghosts, which focuses on modern dating and ghosting – this phenomenon where someone suddenly stops replying to your messages and calls. This is something I have experienced and it’s so strange and confusing… you never know what actually happened to the person – they could be dead for all you know – but they’re still very present in your head.

Of course, since the title hints at several ghosts, Nina is haunted by much more than the absence of Max. There is first her dad and the ghost of who he used to be, then there is her best friend and the ghost of their friendship, and finally the ghost of Nina’s past when everything seemed easier and sweeter. I am a little younger than Nina but I could really relate to this period of confusion she experiences, feeling apart from her friends, and at a loss when it comes to her family. I think that her relationship with her mum was especially interesting because you can tell that they do love each other, but they have an extremely complicated relationship and deal with the crisis in completely different ways. Their relationship felt very real and strong, it’s not often that I read about a beautifully nuanced mother/daughter relationship.

To me Ghosts is like one of those romcoms from the 80s/90s that can be very funny and romantic, but have more depth than you would first expect. We really needed a 21st century version, so thank you Dolly Alderton! This is a very modern novel in the fact that it portrays a realistic version of online dating. It’s not too exaggerated and over the top as you can sometimes see, but technology and texts are an essential element of Nina’s life – as it is for most of us. I was a little scared that online dating would be represented in a silly, exaggerated way but it really is well depicted – the strangeness of it all and the magic that happens when you finally click with someone. Obviously, this is all the more traumatising when the person you are dating stops responding altogether and you have no idea whether they’re still alive. I experienced something similar in a friendship and the way Nina feels was so vividly portrayed, I felt I was back a few years ago wondering what I could have possibly done wrong to hurt this friend who suddenly stopped talking to me. Like Nina, you feel at a loss as to why Max decided to disappear from her life because he was about to meet her parents and had just told her that he loved her. And then suddenly, nothing.

Since Ghosts is a modern take on the traditional romcom, the ending might not necessarily be satisfying for everyone. I thought Alderton’s message was very uplifting but there were a few things at the end that made me frown a little, I think we could’ve easily done without those… and I’m pretty sure that anyone who’s read this book will know what I’m talking about. Overall I liked Nina’s story but as I would like watching a feel-good film on a rainy afternoon, and I’m not sure I will remember much from it in a few months. I still would recommend reading this novel, you’ll spend a nice time in its company but don’t expect too much from it, just take it as it is – a pleasant read about modern dating and friendship.

Have you read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Lying Life of Adults is the much awaited latest book written by Elena Ferrante – the first one after the last volume of Neapolitan quartet. It tackles similar issues to her previous works, for instance class, beauty, adolescence, studying, etc. This is not a plot-driven novel and Ferrante focuses more on the evolution of the heroine, Giovanna, as she goes through turbulent changes in her teenage years.

When the novel starts, Giovanna is an adult who is looking back at her 12-year-old self hearing her dad referring to her as ugly, and comparing her to his estranged sister who he thinks is as nasty as her looks might suggest. This comment leads Giovanna to become interested in this aunt, Vittoria, whom she is supposed to look like. Raised in a middle-class neighbourhood of Naples, she goes to meet her aunt down in the working-class area of the city and meets people who are completely different from her wealthy, quiet, and educated friends. It’s tricky to sum up this novel because it’s not so much about what the characters do but rather how they interact and evolve.

It took me a while to write this review because if I’m honest, I have been clueless about this book. It’s haunted me for a while after reading it, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think I felt very frustrated only having access to Giovanna’s growth on such a short period of time. I really hope that there will be a sequel to this book, because I feel like Ferrante is the best at creating character development over the course of a few books – she needs space to say all the things that she has to say.

Even though Giovanna is recalling what happened during her teenage years, she still conveys the feelings of adolescence vividly. Everything is changing around her – her body, the way people look at her, her family… and all her emotions are heightened, especially anger. That makes her sometimes really annoying, but that’s what you get when following a teenage heroine. It is such a strange time of life and I think Ferrante is excellent at portraying this. She’s especially good at depicting the changing body of a girl and how it impacts everything, and also the fear of looking like an older relative because she feels so ugly and awkward. There is also this new way that men have to look at you, and it creates more discomfort but also an ambivalence between hating this new body and using it to gain a certain power over men. Being a teenage girl is to feel a constant angst towards your body and to wish you were anyone but yourself. It might not be the same for everyone, but it certainly was for me and I think this ambivalence of the changing body is beautifully portrayed in The Lying Life of Adults.

And of course, adolescence is the time of first love interests. I won’t go into too much detail, just because I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s pleasure in discovering this story, but love in this book is very reminiscent of the Neapolitan series. There is a clear distinction between the interest Giovanna receives from most boys and men, who are all like animals in the sense that they only expect sex from her. On the other hand, there is the educated young man who transcended his class through studies; he is more spiritual, and pushes Giovanna to better herself on an intellectual level. This figure resembles Nino in Ferrante’s previous series, but we also know later that Nino was in fact not much better than other men in that regard. In this novel, Giovanna falls in love with the idea of this man, his goodness and his kindness – almost like a religious idol. I thought that this was very relevant with the theme of adolescence because we all have this one person that we are obsessed with when we grow up to the point of adoration (whether an actual person or a celebrity).

I would love to be able to read Italian and read Elena Ferrante’s words as she thought them. Ann Goldstein does an amazing job at translating these beautiful novels, but I also know that you always lose something in translation. I remember when I first read Jane Eyre in French and then read it in English – it was like a completely different work and the writing flowed much more beautifully in English. It would be interesting to know what someone who read both the Italian and English versions thinks of The Lying Life of Adults (but that’s also because I’m a bit of language nerd).

If you’re already a Ferrante fan, you can just go ahead and read The Lying Life of Adults; you will find everything you love about about this author’s books. If you’ve never read Ferrante before, it might be a good place to start because it’s rather short and involves a little bit less commitment than My Brilliant Friend and its three following instalments. It’s a fantastic book that will get you hooked on Giovanna’s thoughts, but please be aware that you too will cry for a sequel at the end of your reading. PLEASE, give us another book – I beg!

Have you read this book already? What did you think of it? And as usual, happy reading!

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

sister killer

What an eye-catching cover! I had seen this book absolutely everywhere this year and had been drawn to its memorable cover design with this beautiful yet intriguing face on a black background and neon green font. I finally decided to pick it up and yield to the temptation.

The beginning of the novel was just as gripping: Korede is pondering on different techniques to scrub off blood whilst she is cleaning around the corpse of her sister’s third victim. After reading the first couple of chapters, you would think it’s all in the title; the sister, Ayoola, is a serial killer and this novel is a classic thriller – except it really isn’t.

In my opinion, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a novel about sisterhood and what it means to be the older sister. My sister is much younger than me and I know I would do everything it takes to protect her and make her life easier. Would I cover her every time she murders a boyfriend ? Definitely not. But Ayoola and Korede grew up with a violent father and ‘witnessed’ the death of the latter, which has to damage one’s vision of righteousness as well as strongly increase solidarity between sisters. I say ‘witness’ because I am not sure whether Korede is the most reliable narrator and I am sure there are many voluntary omissions in her story… as you might expect from a serial killer’s accomplice!

This novel has been described as a comedy, but I don’t remember smiling once whilst reading it… I did enjoy the depiction of sisterly help, although Korede’s way of loving Ayoola is rather strange as she is cold and distant, even though she is always here for her in case of trouble. I also found it quite refreshing to read a story set in Nigeria but which is not solely about that setting. Although Korede mentions the corruption that pervades in institutions like the Police and Government, this is not a story about Nigeria. Of course, we need to read and learn about the terrible conditions in which people live in certain parts of the world, but it’s also very nice to have an African country as a regular setting of a story – it normalises such a setting and creates more diversity, I think. Yet, I don’t think I will remember My Sister, the Serial Killer in a year from now. I did not laugh, I did not feel for any character, and I found the writing rather bland. There were many hints at great story lines but they were all given up on very quickly. However, I will keep an eye on what Oyinkan Braithwaite comes up with in the future as I am sure my problems with her writing comes from the fact that she may not have completely found her voice yet.

Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester as A Hero of Romance

Last June, I took part in the MA conference organised by Queen Mary University of London, where I did an MA in Victorian Literature. I presented a paper on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, more precisely on its hero, Edward Rochester. I argue that he is a hero of romance as he is a fantasy, a true creation and most importantly, a space for the author to develop a new form of masculinity.

Edmund H. Garrett 1897

At first, Edward Fairfax Rochester, hero of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), appears as a strange hero of romance: he is ugly and sometimes rude, but most importantly, he is a forty-year-old man who tries to trick an eighteen-year-old girl into a bigamous marriage.  Surprisingly nonetheless, this strange character has fascinated generations of heterosexual female readers. In a review from 1849, James Lorimer already recognised his irresistible appeal as he wrote: ‘We cannot blame [Jane] for ultimately falling in love with Rochester, for in doing so she did nothing more than every woman who has read the book has done since’.[1] There is no doubt that Rochester’s attractiveness has been reinforced over the years by numerous cinematographic portrayals: for instance, among others, by the hugely popular Orson Welles in 1944; by Timothy Dalton in 1983 – who also played James Bond; and by Toby Stephens in a rather more erotic BBC take on Jane Eyre in 2006; the latest being Michael Fassbender in 2011. The regular intervals at which Brontë’s novel is adapted tells us that Mr Rochester is still a popular hero. Critics all agree that he is a Byronic hero, meaning he resembles the characters developed by the poet Lord Byron. Patsy Stoneman gives a thorough definition of the type: ‘Byron’s heroes are not heroic because of any moral or social excellence. They may in fact be moral outcasts, yet have passed somehow ‘beyond good and evil’. They are passionate, unpredictable, mysterious, irresistible to women, yet strangely vulnerable’.[2] Charlotte Brontë was herself an avid reader of the poet and so she was familiar with Byron’s dark and intriguing heroes.

As it happens, the Byronic is also an important element of popular romance novels. In 1867 Margaret Oliphant had already noticed the change that Jane Eyre brought to the literary landscape, noting that

Now it is no knight of romance riding down the forest glades, ready for the defence and succour of all the oppressed, for whom the dreaming maiden waits. She waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through, (and a host of other physical attractions, which she indicated to the world with a charming frankness.)[3]

If we take the example of popular books like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, we can see how true that is. Sarah Wooton explains that those are ‘fantasy romances that reinscribe our fascination with a damaged and damaging anti-hero – a seductive outsider who is superior in suffering, sinfulness, subversions, and perversions – as encountered by an inexperienced, yet curious, young woman’.[4] Of course, this pattern recalls Jane Eyre as Mr Rochester is an experienced older man who has ‘travelled a great deal, and seen a great deal of the world’ whereas Jane is a young governess of eighteen ‘little acquainted with men’.[5]

Immediately after the release of the novel, critics were quick to notice the appeal of Jane Eyre on readers, and the interest female readers had for Rochester. A critic for The North American Review noted that:

The hero, Mr Rochester […] became a great favorite in the boarding schools and in the worshipful society of governesses. That portion of Young America known as ladies’ men began to swagger and swear in the presence of the gentler sex, and to allude darkly to events in their lives which excused impudence and profanity.[6]

In spite of the satirical tone of the critic, the influence of a hero like Rochester can be understood in terms other than a mere female fantasy. We can see here that he also exerts an influence on young male readers who try to act as he would in order to attract women. Thus, his masculinity becomes an example to follow in order to gain female attention. Although some male reviewers recognised that ‘there is truth in the abrupt, strange, clever Mr Rochester’, most critics were adamant that Rochester could not but be ‘the vision of a woman’s fancy’.[7]

Yet, it seems that a character like Rochester is worth considering when evaluating the striking changes to masculinity which occurred in the early nineteenth century. After the French revolution, and the rise of industrialism, there was a shift from the eighteenth-century dandy to the bourgeois ideal, yet ideal manhood remained an elusive concept. In 1831, Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that; Werterism, Byronism, even Brummelism, each has its day’.[8] So Jane Eyre can be read as a  woman’s attempt to redefine masculinity, clutching the ‘phantom’ of the Byronic and replanting him in the early Victorian period. Mr Rochester embodies the change that occurred in the ideals of manliness during the period; during his time in Paris, he behaves as an aristocratic libertine who duels his love rival yet by the end of the novel, he is a manly man who nonetheless experiences his masculinity from within. As John Tosh explains, throughout the period, there was a ‘gradual transition from masculinity as reputation [so, from outside] to masculinity as interiority’.[9]

Although, as Patsy Stoneman claims, Rochester is ‘the father of Mills and Boon romances’, he nonetheless remains anomalous in the landscape of romantic heroes.[10] Rochester is like the Roman god, Vulcan, ‘a real blacksmith, brown, broad-shouldered’.[11] When asked, Jane even bluntly tells her master she does not find him handsome. However, as he is not ‘a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman’ Jane feels at ease with him. Because she is not impressed by him at first, she can undertake the role of a heroine of romance as defined by Janice Radway in her study on women and romance; the hero is a challenge to the heroine who has to reform and soften him.

Rochester swears, he is ‘very changeful and abrupt’ because ‘he has painful thoughts, […], to harass him, and make his spirits unequal’.[12] As we have seen, these faults are to do with the Byronic dimension of his character and, at the end of the novel, that trait of character doesn’t really change as he is still rough. His ‘vigorous spirit’ is still the same when Jane finds him at Ferndean, but it is subjugated ‘to a corporeal infirmity’.[13] Indeed, after the fire of Thornfield during which Rochester tries to save his wife, he becomes blind and loses the use of one arm. Rochester’s reform is thus firstly physical. Rochester’s physical strength is highlighted in the text through his athletic figure, ‘his unusual breadth of chest’; he is a ‘practised […] horseman, a ‘beauté mâle’, according to his French mistress.[14] These traits make him more manly according to the standards of the time. When it came to define manliness, the emphasis was very much put on the physical power of men; as John Tosh explains:

[the idea is] accurately conveyed by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the “possession of manly vigour” before “those virtues characteristic of a man”. Manly vigour included energy, virility, strength – all the attributes which equipped a man to place his physical stamp on the world. Next came the moral qualities which enabled men to attain their physical potential – decisiveness, courage and endurance.[15]

Yet, although his physical power makes Rochester more manly and desirable, Charlotte Brontë knows it creates an imbalance in his relationship with Jane. His strength gives him an ascendency over Jane that she will never have, even if she is morally and spiritually superior. When she refuses to flee to Europe to be his mistress, he holds her and says, ‘A mere reed she feels in my hand! […] I could bend her with my finger and thumb’.[16] The maiming of Rochester has always puzzled readers, and has generated a lot of criticism. It can be read as a punishment, as a vengeance, as an image of Jane’s inner anger against him, or as her victory over her lover; as Charles Buckhart puts it, ‘The almost ferocious ethic of Jane, her sense of duty, her Christian self-respect, are entirely victorious – Rochester now talks about God a good deal. She has brought him firmly into line, morally as well as sexually’.[17] In any case, in maiming him this way, even if it makes Jane victorious, Brontë restores the balance between the lovers.

Through her hero’s ‘infirmity’, Charlotte Brontë manages to develop a new idea of masculinity that mainly lies on mental strength and equality with women. Rochester may be physically harmed, but he is still a man and his masculinity is still present; however, it is not a threat to Jane’s integrity anymore and instead enables them to live in harmony. In that, Rochester is a hero of romance as he remains an absolute fantasy, a hero who has some truth in him but he is an ideal. His role in Jane Eyre is to attract the heroine and offer her a challenge of reform and education, but he also serves as canvas for the author to show what a more desirable sort of masculinity could be like.

[1] James Lorimer, in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed Miriam Allott (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 114.

[2] Patsy Stoneman, ‘Rochester and Heathcliff as Romantic Heroes’, Brontë Studies, 36:1 (2011), 111-118 (p. 112).

[3] Margaret Oliphant, ‘Novels’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 102 (September 1867), 257-280 (p. 259).

[4] Wootton, Byronic Heroes, p. 2.

[5] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. By Stevie Davis (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 124, p. 305.

[6] The North American Review, 67 (October 1848), 354-369 (p. 356).

[7] Allott, Critical Heritage, p. 72, p. 89.

[8] Thomas Carlyle, “Characteristics”, The Edinburgh Review, 1831 <https://cruel.org/econthought/texts/carlyle/carlchar.html&gt; [Accessed 30 May 2019].

[9] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 72.

[10] Stoneman, Rochester and Heathcliff, p. 117.

[11] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 509.

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 149.

[13] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 506.

[14] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 155, p. 284, p. 169.

[15] Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 87.

[16] However, he realises that for all his strength, he cannot bend Jane’s spirits, ‘Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it […]’; Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 366.

[17] Charles Buckhart, Charlotte Brontë: A Psychosexual Study of her Novels (London: Gollancz, 1973), p. 75; quoted in Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Charlotte Brontë: Truculent Spirit (London: Vision Press, 1987), p. 162.

2017

I am so glad 2017 is behind us, now! This year has been like the opening of A Tale of Two Cities for me: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Sheer bliss and utter despair have cohabited this year and it did not feel amazing.

As for books, this has not been a fantastic year at all. In 2015 and 2016, I read a bit more than 50 books so I set my Goodreads challenge to 60 books for 2017… That may have been a bit too much for me, or that may just have been the wrong year to set such a challenge to myself. In the end, I read 32 books – which I know is still pretty decent. I also realise that it’s a bit silly to count your love of reading in books read, because it just depends on the size of it and the pace at which you read. I was just a bit disappointed because I know that I can do better than that…

But that’s exactly the point of 2018 for me: this year will be the year of self-love, or at least an attempt at being softer with silly old me. As a result, I decided to go easy on me and set my challenge for this year to 35 books whilst keeping in mind that the important thing is to read anyway. And if possible, to read fulfilling books that make me react and think.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little summary of my reading year on here because I just love to read that sort of articles, and like to reflect on the things I read.

The shortest book I read this year was The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, which is 128 pages long. I don’t remember every detail but I still have the feeling of proper weirdness I had when I read it. It’s about a couple who’s on holiday and they meet a very strange man and the story becomes very weird, indeed. The sort of weird that you can’t really let go but that you can’t fully make sense of. The writing was beautiful, though!

comfort

The longest book, with 590 pages, was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. This book is absolutely amazing and whilst I was reading it, I thought ‘I can’t wait to re-read it.’ – which I’d like to do this year, maybe. It’s the story of this mysterious woman who arrives in a village with her child. No one knows who she is or where she comes from, but she seems to be over-protective of her child which raises the villagers’ curiosity. Especially that of Gilbert, the main narrator, which is one my favourite male character ever, hands down. I cannot recommend reading this novel enough, it is just perfect.

14550083_1178149222262163_984757613524680704_n

I re-read six books this year, including one of my all-time-favourites: L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream), by Boris Vian. This is the most poetic and creative book I have ever read, but it is also bleak and dreadful. Colin meets his wife, who quickly becomes sick and he has to spend all of his money in order to cure her. Meanwhile, his best friend Chick gets more and more obsessed with philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (yes it is a not-so-subtle reference to the one and only Jean-Paul Sartre) and spends huge amounts of money in fake relics. With a very jazzy soundtrack, there is also a vivid criticism of the world of work which Vian despised. I first read it when I was 14 and I am quite happy I have re-read it as an adult because I have been able to understand things a lot more and make more sense of the different messages Vian tried to convey.

Boris-Vian-L-Ecume-des-jours

It is quite funny because the book I read in 2017 which has the best ratings on Goodreads is also the book I enjoyed the least. I am talking about Coleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us. It deals with very serious issues like domestic abuse but I was just not convinced. First, I thought it was not really realistic and I could see the writer behind every plot twist or things like that. Besides, there were a few sex scenes which made me cringe a lot. I am not a big fan of sex in novels for I often find them unrealistic and just badly written, but here it was particularly the case. I went to the London Girly Book Club to talk about it in August, and I feel like most of the girls there thought about the same as me – which I found quite comforting.

27362503

My two favourite books of 2017 are Clair de Femme (Womanlight) by Romain Gary and How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis.

9782070296064-usRomain Gary is one of my favourite authors and I remembered why by reading Clair de Femme. It’s about this man who runs away from home because his wife is very ill and has decided to commit suicide. He thus decides to stay away whilst she does that and reminds himself of all the time they’ve spent together whilst he slowly loses his mind. This a sad, sad story but this is beautiful. Sometimes, it doesn’t make much sense because the narrator is going absolutely nuts – and you can understand why – but it is filled with poetry. I saw there is a film adaptation with Romy Schneider and Yves Montand, so maybe that can be good, who knows!

 

how-to-be-a-heroine-by-samantha-ellisLater on this year, I felt deeply in love with non-fiction thanks to Samantha Ellis’s book, in which she goes through the heroines she had when she was younger and re-evaluates them now, as an adult. It is fascinating, and very easy to relate to if you’re obsessed with books. But the reason why it made me fall for the genre is because I just loved hearing somebody’s story. Ellis comes from a very background and tells her story in such a natural and realistic way, I feel like I learnt so much with her. And she also provided me with a massive to-read list, which is always a nice bonus.

 

Anyway, 2017 was the year of massive ups and downs and I am very glad to start afresh with lots of things to look forward, and hopefully, many more fascinating books to come.

giphy