In a reversal from my last review, of a book with an autistic main character by a neurotypical author, I am now reviewing a book by an autistic author with a main character who is not identified as autistic or neurotypical. This is the 2020 novel, Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan.
A quick plot summary: It is the late 2010s – post Brexit but pre-pandemic. Ava, a 22-year-old recent graduate from Dublin, has moved to Hong Kong to teach English to children, because she isn’t sure what else to do. Her romantic interests are Julian, an English banker who specialises in affection via disdain and the stiff upper lip and Edith, a Hongkongese lawyer who is so beautiful and fascinating that Ava can hardly believe she keeps coming back to her.
If you’re thinking ‘It’s got to be Edith, surely’, you have identified Ava’s problem. The contrast between how Ava feels with Julian and how feels with Edith is powerful. With Julian, sex is something she does, whereas with Edith, it seems to reach who she is. Yet there are barriers holding Ava back from moving forward in her life, not entirely internal, but mainly so.
What distinguishes Exciting Times from other romantic comedies that I have read and seen, including The Rosie Project, is the absence of friends. Friends in these types of stories have the useful function of challenging the protagonist and reminding them of who they are, their core values. Ava does not have friends, not really. She is a lonely and insecure person, and this is put across in various observations that in many instances are so deadpan and so subtle that you only notice the effect of them once you have taken a step back. Part of this is the result of moving to a new country, but even in her home country Ava was solitary; she mentions, for example, that most of the time female friendship groups will chip in for a plane ticket to London if one of them needs an abortion, but having no friends, she has saved her own fund. Books written by young people in the 2010s/2020s inevitably get called ‘Millennial’ as if they are incomprehensible to older people, but what this showed to me was that the 21st century’s capacities for connection, geographical and social, don’t necessarily save you from ending up with the same experience of mediocre-to-no company endured by countless generations.
Ava seems to understand people well. She is full of extremely astute observations about them. But she has low self-esteem, which I believe explains, even if it doesn’t excuse, the behaviour some Goodreads reviewers described as “self-absorbed” and “cold”. Ava makes choices on how to interact with people based on her own instincts, which are in turn influenced by her low opinion of herself. At one point late in the novel (no spoilers) it turns out that the effect of her behaviour was the dramatic opposite of what she intended. A far too easy thing to do: I can’t imagine I am the only one who, reading that moment, reeled back and thought Oh, I remember when I did that. She struggles to find a response both appropriate and authentic. I cannot help wondering if some of the negative reviewers would have preferred a more dramatic climax – at least a bit of crying – but to me this was more identifiable.
The novel also explores the broader conflicts of identity in the Ava-Julian-Edith triangle, particularly through the metaphor of language. Ava is Irish, a woman and from a working-class background, which means she is viewed with some contempt by Julian’s friends, and to some extent by Julian himself. Yet, she is still a white, native English speaker and teacher, and her position in Hong Kong upholds the historic legacy of white supremacy and British colonialism. “If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. […] I was teaching my students the same thing about white people. If I said things one way and their live-in Filipino nanny said them another, they were meant to defer to me.” Ava does not do anything to act on her interest in social justice, beyond commenting on it internally and in conversations with Edith and Julian. I can understand why some readers would feel frustrated by this, but to me it is another manifestation of her own sense of unease. It is easy to forget on the other side of those difficult ages of 18-23 how all-consuming the process of what the author Paraic O’Donnell called in his review “self-making” is. Ava feels like she should be a writer. In a meta-way I suppose she is, since she’s narrating the novel. But every writer I’ve ever met has something inside them that they are driven to write about, and I think that, as well as friendship, is what Ava is waiting for.
This book is not for you if you are tired of novels about young people in cities having angst about their love lives with references to austerity and pretty lattes. To be fair there are a lot of these. It also has relatively little in dramatic suspense and climaxes, despite its title. But Exciting Times to me stands out for its stoic realism. A lot of life’s development happens in jobs you don’t like and are not good at, gatherings with people who are far from your friends, and lonely weekday nights with your phone. Combining this with clever lines about language and identity, and I was sold.