book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times
 by Naoise Dolan

Overview: Ava moved to Hong Kong to teach English for a while. She doesn't have a broad view of her future. She's not presuming to know anything. She's just there, taking it a day at a time. Then she stumbles into something between a friendship, romantic relationship, and acquaintanceship with a banker named Julian. She outwardly despises him while still enjoying the benefits of his company, namely, the money and job title he posses. Then she meets Edith who is a lawyer. There's a deeper connection, a clearer romantic thread with Edith, but once again, it's far from perfect. While not providing the most enlightened social commentary, the novel does offer an interesting granular look at the complexity of human relationships. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 Ava, much in the spirit of Sally Rooney heroines, is a socialist, and she's happy to bring that up to anyone who breaths. This, of course, opens up the vast room for critique of her character and the obvious shortfalls she comes into as the way she lives and what she values doesn't necessarily hold up against her ideals. It's hard to discern if the book is trying to make big social statements or to, instead, show an imperfect, flawed character who has noble intentions. If the goal is the second, as I suspect it is, the book is highly successful. Ava has plenty of idiosyncrasies as you'd expect in literary fiction. 

Still, I enjoyed living in Ava's sarcastic, overthinking world. She analyzes herself deeply, mulling over moments and constantly drafting notes she won't send. While she doesn't understand some of her choices or actions and sometimes disagrees with her own decisions objectively, Ava is still down to dissect. And it does lead to some amount of growth. It's kind of nice to see a character that's so aware of how her values are sometimes misaligned with her choices. 

Then there's Julian and Edith. While they have their defining personality traits – Edith being pragmatic and sensible and Julian being a somewhat careless and callous capitalist with a soft spot – they don't greatly develop. Julian and Edith are constrained by Ava's point of view and their utility to her world. She imagines them as full people, but there's a certain acknowledged bandwidth for how far Ava can go beyond her personal scope. It doesn't make them or the story any less interesting, and it's not a flaw of the writing, it's more expressed as another layer of Ava's character.

Plot: 4 The short chapters and quick pacing moved this book towards a higher rating for me. The plot movement keeps it engaging, and the emotional stakes are high enough that a relatively quiet story stays interesting. Though Ava lives the same general pattern of a day over and over, her emotional turmoil stays pressing enough that it works as a narrative arc. Ava's on paper growth is hard to chart, but there is a feeling of satisfaction by the end.

Writing: 4 One thing I love about the book is how Dolan weaves in the grammar lessons Ava's teaching in class into each chapter in how she relates it to the larger picture of her life or how the language rules can alter your perspective on the world. It was a unique device to employ and one that felt particularly unique to Ava's character. I commend the dedication to Ava's unique voice and point of view throughout, and on the sentence level, the book shines the most. I can see where the Rooney comparisons come from, but I think that Dolan's voice brings its own flavor that is less bogged down in the fancy language and precision of Rooney's novels.

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