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Exciting times: A novel about the power of relationships or the power of individuality?

A bittersweet book review

My rating: 3.5/5

Exciting Times, written by Naoise Dolan, is a Romance novel that came out just last year. It follows the life of Ava, a 22 year-old Irish girl living in Hong Kong, who teaches grammar to the children of the wealthy. Along the way, she meets Julian, a witty and affluent banker who grapples with his own feelings for Ava, and Edith, an ambitious and striking lawyer who Ava realises might be more than just a friend.

As a light-hearted yet thought provoking read, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the questions it posed to the reader during and after reading. While I personally found the ending unsatisfying, I do believe it provides a strong symbol on how the "bittersweet-ness" of life does not always promise a happy ending.

Ava describes herself as “good at men”, which is an incredibly succinct perspective of her own opinion on relationships. She undoubtedly sees relationships as a power game and an “ultimately shallow emotional transaction”. This is emphasised when she moves into a flat she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford without the help of Julian, a banker she successfully seduces. This outlook of presenting herself as unemotional is also reflected in other aspects of her life, such as with her work colleagues who she begrudgingly goes out partying with upon occasion. Her family also experiences this, such as when Tom, her brother, says, “You punish people for it,” when Ava admits to avoiding honest conversations. It can be inferred that Ava sees life, in general, as bittersweet; a power play with others to perhaps make her more comfortable within her own identity. Although these “shallow emotional transaction(s)” repay her with something sweet - a riveting lifestyle in a fascinating foreign country - they also leave her with bitter thoughts circulating in her brain, such as the inevitable fact that if she doesn’t change, her journey of self-discovery will never have the ability to progress.

A key theme in the novel is self-knowledge, which is often something many struggle to grapple with. Self-knowledge can come in the form of a bittersweet emotion; one of realising who you really are, often an uncomfortable and confronting experience but alas a necessary one. Edith and Ava’s relationship is a prime example of this dawn of self acceptance and knowledge, especially as Edith is describing Ava to herself when they meet as acquaintances: ‘That’s good to know about me,’ [Ava] thinks. “It’s good to know that’s how I behave in this situation.” Although it may be inferred that Ava is obsessively caring over what Edith thinks of her.

Ava’s choices throughout the novel, such as when she decides to move in with Julian, or go on a date with Edith, repeatedly show how important it is to her that she keeps self-protection in mind. Like a zookeeper observing a tiger in a cage, Ava keeps reserved expectations of Edith. Their love story is evidently also expected to be perceived as a fear story. The new found vulnerability Edith has exposed to Ava is a bittersweet experience in itself; this is reflected in the choices Ava makes within regards to her relationships further into the novel.

At certain points, Exciting Times feels as though it has everything thrown in at once and mixed together, which hinders the narrative flow and risks alienating the reader, but analytically the rushed dialogue only furthers the idea of how severe Ava’s insecurities are. Overall, this book discusses key themes such as the self-discovery, which accompanies coming of age, how to deal with other unwelcome feelings towards others, as well as many other bittersweet tropes. Whilst progressing in life is an extremely exciting and apprehensive experience, Dolan proves that whatever is gained will inevitably result in a loss of some kind. Regardless, this always ends in an equilibrium where the sweetness of life and the decisions we make will turn bitter before rewarding us with the sweetness once again. There is no doubt of the message Dolan is trying to channel from the beginning of the book: “We must accept the end of something in order to begin to build something new.” Being human comes with the constant battle of making these choices, and so this novel encourages these decisions and risk-taking in order to develop ourselves and individual characteristics. Although this may seem like a disappointing clichè to accompany a tense and turbulent romance about a confused 22 year-old, things are often only clichès because they are true. Consequently, the truth, for one reason or another, is almost always bittersweet.

Other bittersweet books I’d recommend:

  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

  • Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

  • Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Leave your bittersweet books in the comments below!


martha hammond, 15, has always loved reading and writing, especially about topics such as history, politics, and film. she also enjoys spending time with her dog and horses as well as going out with friends. she is an op-ed writer on love letters magazine.

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