I’d been seeing this book everywhere and the cover is so beautiful that I decided to read it as part of the 2020 reading rush and I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Ava is a 22 year old TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian, a rich English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her move into his guest room. Then Julian goes to London and Ava meets Edith, who actually listens when she talks and openly cares about her. But when Julian announces he will be returning to the apartment in Hong Kong, Ava’s two worlds collide.
On the one hand, this novel captures what it is to be young and not know who you are or what you want with a healthy dash of social commentary thrown in, but on the other there were many instances where I was just deeply frustrated with Ava, the protagonist.
In this witty, debut novel, Ava views relationships as a power struggle, frequently proclaiming herself to be ‘good at men.’ In her mind, relationships are an emotionless transaction of other, often more material, goods (such as luxurious and deeply expensive apartments). She sees her relationship with Julian as a bizarre competition of who can seem the most disinterested in the other while they live together and have sex. Yet she also makes it her primary goal to get him to admit to having deeper feelings for her. In contrast, Ava relaxes around Edith and learns to trust in Edith’s feelings for her (even if she fails to understand the reason for them). It is Ava’s continued obsession with Julian after having met Edith that is so frustrating, because she is so clearly much happier with Edith (which she acknowledges multiple times).
However, Ava’s character is best summed up by a line in the book itself when Edith says to Ava ‘I don’t think you’re interested in having a nice life’ and this is often how Ava’s choices seem. She obsesses over what her thoughts and feelings say about her identity but never appears to question why she behaves in ways that she fundamentally disagrees with or stop her from being happy. She makes every action into a political statement but is never satisfied with the statements being made. My developing frustration with Ava as a result of this is likely why I felt a slight relief at Edith’s section of the book because someone finally calls Ava on her determination to be unhappy.
Overall, my enjoyment of the story but growing frustration at Ava’s character led to some mixed feelings about the novel. Although it is still a poignantly written assessment of class and sex and if you are fan of Sally Rooney then you will love Naoise Dolan and should absolutely read Exciting Times.