Talk about “exciting times”. There was a huge question mark over whether or not I’d get this book finished in time to write my review today. I had a bit of chunk left on Monday night but I had an early blood test the next day. This meant minimum late-night reading. The plan was to finish it on my lunch break on Tuesday. Unfortunately, that never happened. A big issue with working from home is the proximity of my bed to my workstation. I tend to eat lunch as I work and have a break later in the afternoon. This means I can spend the whole time doing nothing. Yesterday, I set my alarm for an hour and had a nap. It was pathetic. I’m not going to be fit for anything once I’m no loner shielding. Still, it got me through the rest of the day. It did mean that I had to quickly get through the final 60 pages and write this review all in the same night. As you can guess, I managed it and with a pretty good chunk of time to spare. It’s all down to the power nap.
Just as every female crime writer sees doomed to be compared with Agatha Christie, all contemporary female Irish writers will forever be compared to Sally Rooney. It feels as though they are just being set up to fail. It did mean that I went into Exciting Times with my lower expectations than I normally would have. In general, it’s the kind of novel that I get really excited for and I’m always up for an LGBTQ read. I’m just always so mistrustful of major literary hype. We were promised wit, insightful social commentary, and great writing. All very big words for a debut novel.
Thankfully, Exciting Times is an incredibly successful first book. The story follows 22-year-old Ava and her attempts to navigate modern relationships. Ava is originally from Dublin but finds herself living in Hong Kong as a TEFL teacher. Her only real acquaintance if 29-year-old banker, Julian. The pair are sleeping together but in a very detached and non-committal way. They are keen to point out that they don’t have feelings for each other and, most of the time, don’t seem to like each other. Yet, their relationship works. He is happy to spend money on her and she is happy to repay him with companionship. It’s by no means a healthy way to live but it works. At least until Edith walks onto the scene.
The pair meet when Julian is out of town for work and Ava is immediately smitten with Edith. She quickly finds herself enjoying their time together and looks forward to their outings. Rather than the shallow and meaningless connection she shares with Julian, Edith gives her everything she craves. Ava likes spending time with her new friend and feels better about herself because of her. Edith listens to her and helps her. Everything is suddenly going wonderfully until Julian announces that he’s coming home. What will Ava do when the two people closest to her will inevitably come face-to-face?
Exciting Times is one of those books that will leave many people frustrated. Ava is the kind of character who seems to keep self-sabotaging and you’ll be screaming at her to make different choices. Her relationship with Julian is clearly problematic thanks to the power dynamic. Julian is older, has a better job, and comes from a better family. He enjoys being able to throw his money at Ava and he really likes how much she enjoys spending it. She thinks the relationship works because she doesn’t care what he thinks. However, she also rejoices at her ability to understand men. She does everything possible to become the perfect girlfriend in the hope that she will gain some power back.
The idea of relationships as a power struggle is not new but Dolan manages to make it seem fresh and modern. She brings a dry and deadpan quality thanks to her writing. Something that manages to encapture a very modern sensibility. This book is an interesting and shrewd look at the world of dating as faced by 20-somethings nowadays. Ava possesses all of those traits that the media would describe as millenial. She is listless and full of self-doubt, self-hatred, and anxiety. She craves affection but is too scared of being hurt to make meaningful connections. She holds part of herself back from everyone, which is why her relationship with Julian works so well. Even as her barriers start to break down with Edith, she holds onto her other life for fear of embracing real happiness.
Ava compartmentalises her feelings and is regimented in how much she gives away. Something that is wonderfully mirrored in the novel’s own three-part structure. The first is dedicated to Julian, the second Edith, and the third to them both. Dolan is very clever with the way she tells her story and the tone she keeps throughout. This is a book that tries to keep a straight face at all time and doesn’t reveal more than it needs to. It seems to be being pushed as a novel about a love-triangle but that’s not what Exciting Times really is. We learn little about Edith and only a little more about Julian. Instead, the focus is on Ava’s introspection. All of her actions are those of someone desperate for self-knowledge. We get glimpses of the world at large but, at every turn, we end up looking back in. Ava shuts herself from people and the novel, in its solipsistic way, shuts her off from the rest of the world.
I won’t say that there are a lot of similarities between Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney. What they do have in common is their ability to write engaging and exciting novels that really speak of modern society. Their styles are different but their impact and skill are plain for all to see. Dolan is self-assured, funny, and insightful. She touches on plenty of interesting and important social topics. Her observations on Irish culture, especially about homosexuality and abortion are particularly raw. For a first novel, this is definitely one that lives up to the hype and I can’t wait to see what else Dolan has to offer.