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13 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Everything I Know About Love is a shockingly intimate memoir from former sex columnist Dolly Alderton

This is not the story of a “bored and sad and lonely” girl, but something much better – a wonderful writer.

By Julie Burchill

Until recently, I would have placed dating columnists somewhere between car-testers and topiary-correspondents in the hack hierarchy – and past the age of 25, surely it’s a sign that you’ve been sexually rejected by a generation? There’s an exception to this rule, though; if the go-getter is a) gorgeous and b) a good writer, with one bound book they are free.

You wait for ages, then two come along at once: immediately before this, I read Emily Hill’s debut short story collection Bad Romance, in which she effortlessly graduated from being a Sunday Times dating columnist to the Saki of sex. And here is a book from her predecessor, Dolly Alderton, which is nothing short (rather like the 6ft-tall Dolly) of breathtakingly beautiful (ditto).

Virtue-signalling is one of the most irritating cultural tics of our time, and an exceptionally high proportion of young female writers go in for it. Which is a shame and also retrogressive, as it’s just another way of being a good ickle girl trying to get a different kind of male approval at a stage of your life when you should be throwing caution to the wind and being a total self-serving bitch. Such suck-ups also tend to be mimsies who bore on about “self-care” (which is merely self-pity with added vibrators), whereas Alderton’s idea of self-care is a threesome with Ben and Jerry.

Though she’s a middle-class miss from the north London suburbs, there’s something pleasingly Everygirl about her, which the likes of Lena Dunham and Laurie Penny so woefully lack. She’s the opposite of a snowflake – she’s a big, glinting snowball with a razor blade inside.

This book is almost shockingly intimate; the autobiographical writing is so rich, so affecting that without a little leavening it might be necessary to lay it aside every ten minutes in order to maintain some kind of equanimity. But luckily it’s pleasingly interspersed with flashbacks to what Alderton knew about love as a teenager (“Romantic love is the most important and exciting thing in the entire world”), at 21 (“When you are thin enough, you’ll be happy with who you are and then you’ll be worthy of love”), at 25 (“If a man loves you because you are thin, he’s no man at all”) and up to date at 28 (“It is no person’s job to be the sole provider of your happiness. Sorry.”) Also vegetarian hangover recipes (“Got Kicked Out of The Club Sandwich”) and snarky fake group email messages from the sort of self-caring snowflakes whose sororities it would be worth having a sex-change in order to avoid: “There will be craft beer. The Death Of Hackney tastes like fizzy Marmite and smells like a urinary tract infection and is yours for £13  a bottle. Enjoy!”

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In these mis-mem dog-days, it’s refreshing to read a young woman who feels no need to pathologise pleasure in order to turn a crisis into a drama. Alderton likes a drink (“Pouring alcohol into my brain was like pouring water into squash – everything diluted and mellowed”) and becomes so drunk that at one point she believes that she is in Oxford city centre when she is actually outside Oxford Circus Topshop. On the heartbreak diet, she feels “like a high-speed train that was magically running on empty”. Her account of her coke-sniffing days is so on the nose it made me wince in recognition.

But looking back at her lost years, Alderton sees the empty glasses as being metaphorically half-full and concludes that “a lot of it was magnificent, carefree fun”. Writing about friendship, she shines most of all:

In over fifteen years, I have never gone more than a few hours without thinking about her… Without the love of Farly, I am just a heap of frayed and half-finished thought; of blood and muscle and skin and bone and unachievable dreams… my mess only takes on a proper shape with that familiar and favourite piece of my life standing next to me.

Alderton is an old soul – not just because of her appreciation for Gene Kelly and Paul Simon but because she has learned life lessons while not yet out of her twenties that many of us post-menopausal matrons are still struggling with. This is the story of a “bored and sad and lonely” girl stranded in suburbia who became not the woman she dreamed of being – “elegant and slim and wearing black dresses and drinking Martinis” – but something much better; a wonderful writer, who will surely inspire a generation the way that Caitlin Moran and my sensational self did before her. 

Everything I Know About Love
Dolly Alderton
Fig Tree, 336pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry