The (best-selling) love languages of Dolly Alderton
On a recent evening, Dolly Alderton snapped a photo of her dinner companion and shared it with her 300,000 Instagram followers. His name was Max, just like the romantic antagonist in her new novel Ghosts (out Aug. 3 in the U.S.). Soon after, a direct message came in from one of her readers in Britain (where the book has been on shelves, and best-seller lists, since fall 2020), chiding the author for "taking him back." You're better than this, the fan admonished.
This kind of transference has become a regular part of the London-based Alderton's career. She spent a decade writing a popular newspaper column about dating and friendship in her 20s; cohosted the hit podcast The High Low, on which she and fellow best-selling author Pandora Sykes discussed pop culture, trending topics, and pressing concerns of modern womanhood; and published the unflinching memoir Everything I Know About Love, which details her post-university years in London and the struggles associated. She is what we would unmistakably call a Personality, which in our current state of cultural affairs invites constant interpersonal overreach.
Alderton, 32, used to take feedback on her work personally: "It felt like people picking apart my morality or sexuality, like they were attacking my character" she tells EW over Zoom from the writers' room for the BBC adaptation of Everything I Know About Love. But as she gets older, and pivots to fiction, Alderton is able to separate hot takes on her books from hot takes on her. "You're also paying your rent by inviting people in," she says. "So it's part of the deal."
In Ghosts, she builds on the motifs that brought her fame: Protagonist Nina is a well-known writer living in London (her area of literary expertise is food, not love); she meets Max on a dating app, goes on several fantastic dates, and he stop staking her calls just as she's falling in love with him. The potential for confusion between author and subject is clear, but Alderton is not Nina. In fact, the distance between the author and her character gave her freedom she wasn't quite expecting. "I was able to write characters who thought and did morally dubious things," she says. "Nina is more caustic and cynical than I am. It's me, on my fifth glass of wine, feeling my most crotchety."
Many women look to Alderton as a guru — a Carrie Bradshaw figure with more responsible shoe-spending habits — but she takes care not to preach absolutisms in Ghosts. She doesn't want to tell women how to live ("I see life as a series of guesses, regrets, and hypocrisies, with no right or wrong choices," she says), but rather to scrutinize preconceived notions about heteronormative dating. "I resented how much the visibility of his aging seduced me," Nina says in the novel. "Had it been worn by a woman, I might have found it haggard rather than weathered."
But don't mistake insight for omniscience; Alderton is still figuring life out too. She found clarity while writing Ghosts: An epiphany emerged as she worked on the final chapters in a remote cottage (during "deep f---ing lockdown"). Fellow author Tayari Jones was speaking on British radio about the importance of not villainizing her male characters when Alderton realized she had to go back and understand Max's trauma. "I [had] to work out his baggage and fears, to sympathize with him," she says. "That character can't be where I dump all my resentments and anger about how men like Max have treated me." Ghosts, Alderton, and her legion of fans are all the better for it.