Dolly Alderton is back with a new novel ‘Good Material’. Following on from her best sellers ‘Everything I Know About Love’, ‘Dear Dolly’ and ‘Ghosts’, I was intrigued to see what new material she is bringing to her work and whether it could rival my undying love for her previous novels. 

Upon hearing that this was another romance novel which contemplates life in love in the modern age, I was not surprised, but I was equally ecstatic. It’s what she does best, so why shouldn’t she stick to it? However, I was not expecting a male-centric narrative and an older character demographic. Alderton shifts from her safety net of 20-something-year-old female protagonists to deliver us an account of the breakup of a long-term relationship, from the perspective of mid-to-late 30s Andy. I thought I would find it hard to get into the novel and relate to the characters as much as I have in her other works because of the gender divide, but I was quickly proven wrong. The novel exemplifies the universal experience of heartbreak and all the mess that follows it. Andy describes it methodically ‘Van booked, storage unit booked, temporary home found. I’d organised the flowers, the hearse and the burial in one morning.’ His relationship is like a death, a funeral that he is forced to organise. It makes sense, to pair love and loss in this way, they are both two extremes of life. It proves to be macabre but emotionally relatable. 

After four years of being together, Jen and Andy have created a life that is predicated upon their partnership. ‘There are so many hidden miniature breakups within a big breakup. There are so many ahead of me that I haven’t even thought of yet, I’ve been so busy mourning Jen I’d forgotten I’d have to mourn us four too.’ Andy notices how his ‘couple’ friends change once his relationship status does. Alderton reveals the truth we all come to acknowledge a few weeks or months into a breakup, that it’s not just about losing one person, it’s about losing the life you created together and the future that you planned for. 

Technology and social media play a significant role in the novel: phone calls, text messages and Instagram all feed into the breakup like toxins. There is virtually no avoiding an ex when their face or voice is just a click away. I think we can all relate, when Andy reveals: ‘I draft a message to Daisy [another ex of Andy’s] on the notes app, but choose not to send it.’ Alderton describes the negative effects of social media well when she depicts Andy taking a ‘Deep inhalation on the glue bag of Jen and Seb’s Instagram pages…One final deep big sniff, and then I do it as quickly as I can. I block him then I block her. No posts available. Nothing to see. It really is that simple. I wait to feel something. But no feeling arrives.’ It’s like an addiction. But Alderton reminds us that though these are important steps to take in moving forward, blocking someone doesn’t necessarily mean you are letting go of the feelings that led you to spend hours stalking their page in the first place. It’s a drug that leaves you feeling numb and empty in its wake, as it was actually never tangibly there in the first place. 

Through Andy, Alderton recognises the human tendency to look back on these lost relationships with rose-tinted glasses, as ‘Retrospect is gonna give that time a different atmosphere than there was in the actual living of it.’ But that still does not take away from the pain you feel in the wake of its loss. As Andy identifies: ‘It was like I was off sick from my life for a while. Sometimes it’s nice to be off sick. Sometimes it’s nice to not be a thing in the world trying so desperately to be a person. Here’s what I’m getting at. I don’t really know if I want to move on, because the further away I get from the pain the further away I get from her.’ This separation from reality in a break-up is normalised by Alerdton (as I think it should be).  As time passes, looking back is important in being able to heal. It is also painful, as the gradual decrease in the intensity of those feelings means a loss of the relationship itself. And then in feeling less pain, more pain is caused. It’s an impossible cycle. 

We see Andy go through stages of “breakup grief”, from this time of “sickness” – him taking a break from the world – to a time of drastic change where you feel like you have to do everything differently, try new things, be a new, and better, “version” of you. He resorts to semi-self-destructive behaviour in his search for meaning: dating younger people, partying harder, and even living on a boat. It’s a sort of midlife crisis for Andy spurred on by the break-up. However, I would argue age is a semi-irrelevant factor here, as it is such a universal experience to want to change and be different post-breakup. Sometimes you 

reinvent yourself, even if it’s just to prove that you can.

There are moments of revelation which signify the ending of the “breakup grief cycle”. Andy’s mum imparts her very comfortingly maternal knowledge on Andy, (and us), revealing that ‘Getting dumped is never really about getting dumped…it’s about every rejection you’ve ever experienced in your entire life.’ It makes you rethink everything, all the pain of every single time where you have felt you’re not good enough, it all comes flooding back in that time of emotional vulnerability.

Finally, Alderton hits us with another unexpected plot point when she shifts the narrative focus to Jen (Andy’s ex), allowing her narrative voice to take over the story. We get a short but extensive rundown of all the points in their relationship that we have already heard once before from Andy’s point of view. This is Alderton reminding us that there are always two sides to a story, even in a dumping. I empathise with Jen and her quest for her individuality: you come to understand why she entered the relationship, why she broke up with Andy, and why she did it in the way she did. It hits for me when Jane (one of their “couple” friends) reminds Jen that ‘You were alone when you were with Andy…You know how to be alone without being lonely.’ Reminding us that sometimes people aren’t made to exist in a pair, that we can be individuals before, during, and after any relationship. Alderton challenges our old-fashioned, patriarchally enforced views of a relationship – particularly about women in relationships – permitting us to break out of these societal expectations to find a partnership based on stability and happiness. Not, for the avoidance of being alone.

Alderton’s characters are certainly imperfect and often frustrating, but they are real, relatable and human. They mess up, break up, get back together and separate again. They date the wrong people, get too drunk, say stupid things and generally make mistakes over and over again. And this is normal. Andy finishes his narrative by writing a letter to Jen, signing off; ‘I love you. I always will. I’m glad we met. – Andy’ It’s a bittersweet close to their relationship that we have spent hundreds of pages delving in and out of, but one can take comfort in his acceptance and ability to move on. Even more so, in his ability to recognise that there is still love between them, and there always will be, in one way or another.