GHOSTS by Dolly Alderton, Knopf, 320 pages, $27
Ghosting. Has any practice defined the digital dating age quite like the “excuse me while I disappear” strategy? Since it burst into the dating lexicon in the early oughts, we’ve added dozens more terms: Gatsbying, orbiting, breadcrumbing, love bombing, benching, stashing, the list goes on. Considering all these new ways to muck about with a potential love interest’s head, is ghosting starting to feel long in the tooth?
Not according to Sunday Times columnist Dolly Alderton. In Ghosts, her fiction debut, Alderton shows us that the dating practice has no shelf life; being ghosted is still heart-wrenching (and a cruel time suck).
The ghostee here is Nina Dean. She’s British, she’s witty, she’s ready for her meet-cute, but she’s no Bridget Jones. Nina has a successful career as a food columnist and cookbook author, owns a charming apartment in Archway, and is even close with her ex of seven years, Joe. She’s been on a self-imposed dating hiatus since they split, but on the night of her 32nd birthday, on the recommendation of her “Only Single Friend,” Lola, she signs up for dating app Linx and declares that she’s looking for “love and the perfect pain au raisin.”
Pain au raisin she does not get. Instead she gets 27 conversations with 27 different suitors. Alderton’s description of the men one meets on a dating app is hilariously accurate, no matter which side of the pond you’re on. There’s pretend boyfriend man, using his profile to “push an agenda of a dreamy, committed reliability.” Think sanding the floor shirtless and declaring his love for Sofia Coppola movies. There’s festival man, working in IT by day, grabbing the glitter and glowsticks at dusk. And of course the one-night stand man. After three weeks of sifting through the “riff-raff,” Nina is on her first Linx date.
His name is Max. He’s an accountant who looks more like a lumberjack. He’s 37, has hair that’s been tousled by the elements, is “solid as a Sequoia, high as a Redwood and as broad as the prairie.” And he grows vegetables. Physically, he’s Nina’s dream man. So on their first date, when he declares that they’re going to get married, she finds it charming.
They start dating. Conversations move, the bedroom shakes, declarations of love are made. Nina feels like “a teenager again, but with self-esteem and a salary and no curfew.” And then poof. Max disappears.
The universal “I’ve been ghosted” moves ensue. First, check if he’s alive. He is. Then curse his name while continuing to check if he’s posting on social media. And then, come to terms with it and plow forward. Nina throws herself into her work and friendships.
In our 30s, there is the great divide between single women and married women with babies, and Alderton deftly shows the push and pull of these friendships and how single women can often be made to feel like they’re lesser than their reproducing counterparts. For her childhood friend Katherine, Nina treks to the suburbs, Nina plays with the babies, Nina nods and smiles when Katherine assumes that her singleton life allows her “to rise at noon and lie in a warm bath of milk and honey all day while being fanned with dodo feathers.”
And then one day Max shows up on her doorstep like an unexpected Royal Mail package. He’s ready to waltz right through her front door again, but is she ready to let him? In one of the book’s strongest moments, she reminds him that every time he changes his mind, “in such an extreme way, it takes something from a woman. It’s an act of theft. It’s not just a theft of her trust, it’s a theft of her time.”
The interplay of ghosting and theft is also present in the book’s most powerful layer, which deals with an aging parent who is slowly losing his mind — becoming a ghost.
Following a stroke, Nina’s father suffers from Alzheimer’s. He wanders off in search of his childhood home, is sure he sees the Mitford sisters, grades papers for a teaching job he left years before, and, at times, doesn’t recognize his own daughter. Nina’s mother, Nancy, is taking the denial route, rebranding herself as Mandy, leaning into Pilates and “literary salons” (aka book club), leaving Nina to take charge. While trying to line up health-care workers and making sure her father is safe, Nina says, “sometimes it looked like everything he understood had been cut into pieces and he was trying to configure them into a collage that made sense.” That is perhaps the cruelest ghosting of all.
Ghosts, in their many forms, are still relevant. Alderton brings her British wit and fresh writing to online dating and all its ups and downs. Marrieds vs. singles. The unfairness of online dating for women stressed about the tick of the biological clock. Add to it the difficulties of becoming a caregiver, and what you have is a book that is a reality check for many and a solace to those who feel like they’re constantly swiping right without meeting Mr. or Ms. Right.