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.
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.