Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Published by Ecco
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
At 22 Ava decides the best way to have a happy life is to move as far from Dublin as possible. She chooses Hong Kong where she is hired by a private elementary school to teach English grammar. She makes one friend, Julian, who is an investment banker, but what begins as friendship segues into something else. What that is is hard to define in Naoise Dolan’s subtle, but sharp debut novel, Exciting Times.
Aside from moving across the world, life seems to happen to Ava rather than her making it happen. She lives in a tiny flat with two roommates and pays exorbitant rent. She and Julian have gone from coffee dates to hanging in his luxe corporate high-rise apartment because it’s easier due to the long hours he works. Then they have sex and when she’s unable to save enough money for a deposit on an apartment of her own, Julian says she can move into his guest room. It’s all quite civilized except Ava finds herself bothered by the fact that Julian doesn’t call her his girlfriend to his friends. And the fact that she considers him a capitalist while she identifies herself as a communist. Although, that doesn’t get in the way of living rent-free in his apartment and using his credit cards. It’s only when Ava meets Edith, a vibrant woman, fun and comfortable with herself, that easy choices start to feel hard.
Throughout Exciting Times I felt the presence of Sally Rooney’s Normal People in my head. Both of these novels by Irish authors, are contemplative, with pages where the majority of the action is internal. The characters are all nuanced, even Julian. He’s not a predator or unlikable. He’s just emotionally stunted, as is Ava, which means I read this novel with the feeling of a concerned parent, even though I’ve never had children. I felt the same way with Normal People. Why does this generation of 20-somethings seem incapable of sharing real emotion? They have open minds when it comes to all things sexual, but telling someone you love them feels like summiting Everest—the air is too thin for survival.
I know a slow pace will make the novel a non-starter for some, but as fractured and distracted as my mind is, I was still held to the page. Dolan successfully creates characters I cared about, but whom I found deeply frustrating. I was sympathetic even as I was annoyed—a very difficult feat for an author to pull off and what makes the novel feel so real. Add to this, Ada’s pithy, dry-martini humor about everything from politics to the mundane and Exciting Times is my kind of reading.
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