‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan is a sharply observed, brilliant new novel that earned the writer a number of comparisons to ‘Normal People’ author, Sally Rooney.
Naoise (pronounced: Nee – sha) Dolan is young, Irish and upon the release of her debut novel, Exciting Times, drew several comparisons to Sally Rooney, another young Irish author. In many ways, it’s frustrating to keep comparing new female authors to Rooney as it threatens to flatten the landscape of female writers, homogenize them even. And yet, comparisons drawn between Dolan and Rooney are not without merit. The writing style and themes in Dolan’s Exciting Times certainly share similarities with Rooney and may appeal to fans of her work. It’s a compliment to Dolan, definitely. But for all that she shares with Rooney, Dolan’s novel is distinctive and interesting all on its own.
One of the chief points of similarity between Rooney and Dolan’s work is the way in which both authors center their work on the internal lives of young, self-aware women struggling to make sense of the world. Exciting Times follows Ava, a 22-year-old Irish woman new to Hong Kong and working as a TEFL teacher. Somewhat aimless and struggling to connect with either her colleagues or roommates, Ava has lunch with Julian, a London ex-pat. He works in banking, is a little older than Ava at 28, and as an Oxford graduate, seems to have as many posh friends as he does money.
“Julian” is also the title of the first part of the book. Ava’s relationship with him develops from a strange, almost ironic friendship to something sexual. Her life in Hong Kong begins centering on him more and more. They’re not “together” but they sleep together in his room, and Ava eventually moves into the guest bedroom of his flat. It’s not love, but it’s something. But when Julian goes back to the UK for a few months, he leaves Ava to her own devices. That’s when the second part of the book begins: Edith.
Edith, like Julian, comes from money. She’s a wealthy Hong Kong native with a Cambridge degree working as a corporate lawyer. Unlike Julian, however, Ava actually likes her. They end up falling in love. It’s unexpectedly sweet, and after the self-disdain Ava tortured herself with during her relationship with Julian, the love affair with Edith is a much-needed respite. Like Rooney, Dolan’s writing about being young and confused also incorporates a love story. Where Exciting Times diverges from Rooney’s work is that we only ever hear from Ava and are never given the perspective of either Julian or Edith, thus keeping Ava at the center of the novel, and the love story a part of her narrative. Dolan uses Ava’s affair with Edith as a point of self-exploration that results in both painful and satisfying revelations.
The final part of the novel, entitled “Edith and Julian,” marks the point when Julian returns from his trip. What ensues, however, is far more nuanced than the usual love triangle tropes we often see. The novel resists a direct stand-off between Ava’s two lovers and instead, delves into why it’s difficult for her to stay with the person she clearly loves, Edith, and explores that which keeps her attached to Julian. Dolan renders the situation with satisfying complexity, delving into a very 22-year-old dilemma of being both utterly clueless and painfully self-aware. Ava may know whom she loves but convincing herself that she can have this love, beyond Julian or the homophobia of her youth, is a whole different story.
Though the context of Dolan’s novel is very different from anything Rooney has done, they do have something in common. Both authors share is a commitment to presenting their protagonists’ emotional turmoil, however difficult, with twists, turns, and contradictions. These women don’t worry about writing likable characters, and in turn, produce something that feels far more real and relatable. Ava is often frustratingly disconnected from her own life and seemingly intent on ruining her first real love. But ultimately it’s in these moments where her character feels most visceral; most familiar. It’s why I couldn’t put this novel down.
Exciting Times–Class, Money, and Capitalism
“I wasn’t good at most things but I was good at men, and Julian was the richest man I’d ever been good at.”Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times.
Ava doesn’t earn very much from her teaching job, and Hong Kong is an expensive city. Her relationship with Julian is, from the start, somehow separate from money and also dependent on it. He has a nice apartment and lots of money. So she moves out of her cockroach-infested Air BnB and into his flat, where he pays for mostly everything and leaves his credit card for her when he’s away. It’s not clearly transactional, but their relationship is definitely shaped by income disparities. Ava is more bound to Julian because of her limited income.
Complicating this is Ava’s socialism. It adds a layer of self-awareness through which all conversations around money and capitalism are filtered. This perhaps is also where some of the comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work comes in. Normal People is especially brilliant at presenting how, in a capitalist system, income disparities fundamentally alter who we are and what choices we make. But where Rooney’s work does this in the midst of an aching romance, Dolan writes about the issues from a slightly more removed perspective.
Ava is not in love with Julian and so her view of how things operate between them holds some distance. This coldness brings forth an array of exacting observations. Class and money disparities are evident in so many of their interactions, and they rarely go unnoticed by the protagonist and, in turn, the reader. Many have noted this as a distinctly Millennial approach, and I suppose that must be true. We are a generation worried about money and Exciting Times reflects that anxiety with stark clarity.
Exciting Times–Writing Style
“Most English people said ‘what’ as ‘wot’, though authors only spelled it ‘wot’ when the characters were poor.”Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times.
Dolan’s tendency toward exacting observations is what makes her writing so distinctive. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-punching, Dolan is almost always able to mine the subtext of a situation and reveal something you may have otherwise missed. While Rooney’s writing does something similar, Dolan’s language is far more direct, less free-wheeling, and more defined.
Dolan’s able to accomplish this definition through the protagonist’s interest in language. There are many moments in the novel in which Ava notes the disparity between the English she teaches to children, and the Irish she grew up speaking. Irish and its markers become avenues through which to reflect on class, colonialism, and the general ridiculousness of the English language and its many, many contradictions.
The style of the book does, however, shift and flow as Ava goes from not quite loving Julian to falling headfirst for Edith. We see the most of Ava—underneath the persona she cultivated for Julian—once Edith enters the frame. The novel centers on Ava’s sexuality and the quiet battle she wages with herself over caring for someone who may hurt her. The quick, acerbic observations go nowhere but soften as Ava moves from being so internal to participating in her own life.
Dolan’s writing is undeniably captivating. Her examinations of the world Ava moves through are sharp and thought-provoking–it’s what makes this novel so difficult to put down. Ava’s internalization serves to further immerse the reader into her perspective. Is this the new Sally Rooney? Perhaps. But perhaps Sally Rooney is Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan is something all her own. There are certainly connections between their work, but as a fan of both, each feels quite distinctive. Dolan deserves your attention not because she may or may not be like another author you love, but because of the wit and insight she applies to the experience of being young and trying to make sense of the world. It’s compelling, can’t-look-away kind of stuff. And I can guarantee, Rooney fan or not, you won’t regret picking up this book.
Have you read Exciting Times yet? How do you feel about it being compared to Sally Rooney’s work? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments.