Everything I Know About Love

When it comes to the trials and triumphs of becoming a grown up, journalist Dolly Alderton has seen and tried it all. She vividly recounts falling in love, wrestling with self-sabotage, finding a job, throwing a socially disastrous Rod Stewart themed house party, getting drunk, getting dumped, realising that Ivan from the corner shop is the only man you’ve ever been able to rely on, and finding that that your mates are always there at the end of every messy night out. It’s a book about bad dates, good friends and – above all else – about recognising that you and you alone are enough.

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I grabbed a copy of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton on a whim at the checkout in Sainsbury’s. It was £3.99, I was stocking up on yoghurt and pasta. It made sense.

I knew very little about the book besides a few people I follow on Instagram posting about how great it was and assumed from the title that it was probably about boys. And, for the first couple of chapters at least, I was right. Dolly Alderton starts what very much appears to be a book about dating before she pivots into a much more complicated story about friendship, self-destruction, loss, grief, therapy and independence – and cooking. There is a macaroni cheese recipe in there that’ll make you lose your mind.

“Sometimes the gap between the little faith you have compared to the unwavering faith of others is a very moving thing.”

Everything I Know About Love is a series of funny, heart-wrenching and sometimes cringe-inducing personal essays about Alderton’s life, from her beginnings living in the outskirts of London counting down the days until adulthood finally begins, to her discovery of alcohol and its impact on her, some boys and, of course, her personal reckoning – with herself. These essays are broken up by recipes (I know I mentioned this already but the hangover mac and cheese is life changing), made up correspondence on everything from pretentious house parties to the nightmare that is the hen do in the social media age and everything Dolly knew about love between the ages of 21 and 30. From “Men love a filthy, wild woman. Have sex on the first date, keep them up all night, smoke hash in their bed in the morning, never call them back, tell them you hate them, turn up on their doorstep in an Ann Summers nurse’s outfit, be anything but conventional. That’s how you keep them interested.” (21) to “There is a reason why those with shared demons or who had similar childhoods or overlapping ancestry often end up together. I think everyone’s deepest emotional fingerprints reach out and touch each other on an unconscious level. This can be good and bad. This can lead to intimacy and connection, and co-dependency and drama.” (30). Each list is full of embarrassing misconceptions and deep truths I’ve been reflecting on ever since.

In ‘Being a Bit Fat, Being a Bit Thin’, Alderton details how quickly it is possible to fall into disordered eating habits. Always described as “a big girl” by her peers, Dolly hadn’t considered her weight in much detail before her first Big Break Up age 21. Struck down by unexpected heartbreak, for the first time in her life, Dolly found herself completely unable to eat. When she shed a stone in the first few weeks she grabbed hold of weight as one aspect of her life she could control. This is a difficult essay to read, as it speaks very directly to how ingrained diet culture is – in young women in particular. We have been so socialised into believing that thin equals happy even the most reasonable person is vulnerable to falling into that belief – and, as Alderton points out, it’s one that is incredibly difficult to ever be completely free from. Once you know something’s caloric value, it’s very hard to forget.

When I saw the title Everything I Know About Love, I assumed the love Alderton referenced was mostly the romantic kind, but the love story at the centre of her memoir is a platonic one. She and her best friend, Farley have known each other since they were children. They always functioned as two parts of a frenetic whole – that is, until Farley met her partner. Alderton writes with honesty and humility about how hard it was for her to see her best friend fall in love. It is one of the lesser spoken of aspects of friendship, but the particular heartbreak of suddenly becoming second to your friend’s serious partner is a real and horrible phase of life at whatever age it happens to you. Going from speaking to and seeing each other every day to suddenly having to fit into the newly busy schedule of your bestie can be unmooring, alienating and very, very lonely. But, slowly, you adjust to the new normal. The partner you’ve resented comes to feel like family.

Alderton illustrates that periods of closeness and distance are all a part of a long-term relationship, something that becomes very apparent when Farley’s life takes a completely unexpected and tragic twist – leading she and Dolly back to the kind of closeness they hadn’t had in years, under the most awful of circumstances. It’s not the kind of unconditional love she had always pictured, but, Dolly comes to realise, she and Farley have it. Alderton spends much of the book lamenting her supposed inability to maintain long-term love. Her life has mainly been without serious romantic relationships, and she wears her independence like a shield. But the idea that she doesn’t have forever-love in her life isn’t real. Farley is the great (platonic) love of her life – with all the joys, fights, complications and phases that entails.

All I can say to sum up this book is this: I was not ready.

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The Answers

Trigger warning: sexual assault.

Mary is out of options. Estranged from her family, plagued by debt and beset by phantom pain, she signs up for ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ – a mysterious project masterminded by a famous Hollywood actor who, frustrated by romantic and creative failure, hires a collection of women to fulfil the different roles of a relationship.

Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriend’s find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them love.

Here, then, is a novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which plumb the depths of the human heart, and answers that will leave you reeling.

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“Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to be another person – anyone else – for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.”

The Answers by Catherine Lacey presents an unsettling premise as a means of exploring themes of identity, feminism and romantic relationships in one of my favourite reads of the year.

Mary has run out of options. Beset with a mysterious and debilitating illness no doctor could name or solve (“Whole hospitals shrugged.), on the recommendation of her hippy friend, Chandra, she turns to an alternative therapy: PAKing. PAKing (Pnuema Adaptive Kinesthesia) seems to work – though Mary suspects the placebo effect – the relief it brings her leaves her with no choice but to proceed with the cripplingly expensive sessions. In order to pay for her treatments, she signs up for a strange-sounding side hustle, The Girlfriend Experiment (or the GX, as it comes to be known) with a famous actor she has never heard of, Kurt Sky.

There is so much to love about The Answers: Lacey’s poetic yet sharp writing, the personification of the emotional labour of women with Emotional Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend as actual paid jobs, the irony of the title – The Questions would be a much more accurate name – and the off-putting, almost dystopic premise of the GX.

Early on, Mary states that “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person”, a thought that forms a kind of mission statement for a book consumed with the reasons relationships fail. It is a study of variously damaged people looking to escape themselves  – Mary is unable to make meaningful connections with others because of the complete breakdown of her relationship with her parents whose religion dictates they must live ‘off the grid’; Ashley, another participant in the GX is angry at a world that will only define her by her beauty; Kurt is unable to move past the loss of his mother in his childhood and is consumed by his own toxic masculinity; Matheson, Kurt’s assistant, is stuck serving a man who will never love him back; Chandra is (probably) in a cult.

The GX is also more than it seems. Envisioned initially as the answer to Kurt’s, and perhaps, everybody’s, problems – “truly innovative technological solutions to emotional and psychological problems that were previously thought to be just part of the human condition” – it is derailed by a team of scientists with ulterior motives. Less interested in cracking the key to relationships, the scientists instead want to decode feelings, specifically how to not feel them, or to only feel those things that can be considered “useful”. Girls in the GX are manipulated into feeling love, anger, rejection – even Kurt is programmed to experience moments of emotional intimacy with the women he did not consent to.

Even as the plot veers into the bizarre, Lacey’s intense engagement with her subject matter leads to a work that is painfully human. It was impossible not to see your own feelings reflected in the novel – haven’t we all at some point wished to turn an emotion off? – your own questions, insecurities and feelings of isolation in a world increasingly geared toward leaving us separated from our own, and each other’s, truths.

It was funny to read a novel called The Answers that was so utterly devoid of them. But that, Lacey makes clear, is the point.

5 Pick-Me-Up Books for Down Days

I think that at this point people are pretty sick of the recently graduated broadcasting to everyone they know how much their lives suck.

As such, I’m not going to get into it. Suffice to say that the past couple months have been heavy on the job rejection front (I have received 2 in the time I have been writing this blog post!).

This Buzzfeed article pretty much covers it.

But, the truth is, people who spend all their time feeling sorry for themselves are annoying. In the interest of not being one of those people (and Monday being, as always, the start of a New Game), today I present a list of pick-me-up books. You know. Those books that inject a much needed bit of encouragement, or just humour, into your life right when you need it.

The time has come for me to ignore my TBR and turn instead to some old favourites.

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Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

This book will probably fit into every single list I ever write. The simple fact is that I always feel like it was written for me.

Cath is the anxious type. The thrown-in-at-the-deep-end feeling of the first year of university isn’t helping any. Her anxious parts are in overdrive. For the first few weeks she can’t even make herself go into the cafeteria.

(I loved this detail because for my first week of university, I lived off of cheese biscuits and a giant jar of Nutella. I too, had a lot of trouble leaving my room. It seems silly now).

But, despite her resistance, she makes friends. She meets a guy. She copes without even realising that she’s doing it.

What I like so much about this book is the speed at which Cath’s life opens. Coping, for Cath, is something that happens slowly. It’s in every action, rather than a rushed montage-like chapter after which she has her entire universe sussed. For Cath, Okay is a process. There is something incredibly comforting in that which brings me back to this book whenever I get down.

I Was Told There’d be Cake – Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley’s writing bridges the distance between laugh-out-loud and melancholy in a way that is very appealing when dealing with a serial crappy day scenario. While many of her essays tell stories that are outlandish, they remain authentic and relatable.

She writes a lot about the distancing of friendships that starts to happen when you get older and move in different directions. She writes about getting rid of the toy pony collection she built up in gifts from various ex-boyfriends. She also talks about the annoying questions people ask when you say you’re vegetarian, which I appreciated (asking someone but what do you eat? makes you a dick 100% of the time, btw).

Maybe my favourite essay in the book is about the time she threw a dinner party for three friends and one of their asshole boyfriends, and found, when they had left, that one of them had taken a shit on her bathroom floor.

Sloane’s voice is a comforting presence on a bad day.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

The last chapter of this book never fails to make me cry. But it’s sort of for good reasons. If you have a copy and you haven’t read it in forever, please go read the last chapter now. Trust me.

Nobody ‘Bod’ Owens grew up in a graveyard. He had to hide there in order to be safe from the dangers of the world.

Until he didn’t.

‘There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion.

But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.’

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

I really love fish-out-of-water stories (Legally Blonde is one of my favourite movies). Within that, I love when characters succeed simply by being their awesome selves, and gradually getting recognition for that from their peers, rather than by wreaking some epic revenge.  This is not to say that I don’t believe in Matilda-ing the hell out of a situation when necessary. Sometimes you have to make your scary, force-feeding head teacher think that her house is haunted and drive her out of town.

Other times, you’ve just got to be your awesome self, like Elle Woods and Arnold Spirit, and wait for everybody else to catch up.

Arnold has the kind of life where the prospect of hope is in the opposite direction of home. He lives on the Spokane Indian reservation. There is a lot of poverty. His parents are alcoholics.

Nobody ever really leaves the reservation. So when Arnold decides to get out and attend the all-white high school in town miles away… people are kind of mad. People at the all-white high school are kind of mad, too.

But despite all this – the traumatic home life, school days filled with racist discrimination and a whole lot of tragedy and grief, Arnold survives. And thrives. He’s an impressive guy.

I recommend this to anyone who’s starting to think they might need to leave their tribe.

Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

Because memoirs by ladies heal all (insubstantial) wounds.

Of Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs, this one is the best, in my opinion. While the first one is totally enjoyable, I can’t help but feel like she puts more of herself into this second offering. In the introduction she states that she’s done with wanting to be liked, and is instead now much more interested in being known. That is an attitude I can get behind.

This book is about work and being a woman and dating. It’s about 4am worries and the secret to success (spoiler alert: it’s hard work, apparently).

It’s also really really funny and 100% guaranteed to lift the sort of self-involved, churlish sadness that has been the subject of this blog post.

 

Do you have any books that you automatically reread when times get crappy? Let me know. I can always use more mood-boosting reads.