Midway through “Exciting Times,” Naoise Dolan’s incisive and funny debut, the novel’s protagonist celebrates her birthday with a socially conscious friend. Her “present to me was a printed scarf by an L.A.-based eco-feminist collective,” Ava says. “I was skeptical of its claimed carbon neutrality when it had been shipped from California to Hong Kong, but it was soft against my neck.”
In case it’s not obvious, 20-something Ava is plenty conflicted. She’s a self-described communist, yet she teaches at a school attended by the children of Hong Kong’s more ardent capitalists. She uses terms like “socialist praxis” but likes to borrow her banker boyfriend’s credit card. Her life is one big dilemma — and things only get knottier when she falls for her new pal Edith.
Dolan reminds some of Sally Rooney, another left-leaning Irish novelist who writes about the politics of millennial courtship. The comparison makes sense, but it’s not entirely fair to Dolan, whose bold, sardonic narrative voice is original and, at times, irresistible. In a world that lately seems to have gone mad, her characters’ conundrums make perfect sense.
The novel opens with Ava’s first date with Julian, a patronizing banker who likes Hong Kong’s ritzy restaurants. “We got on well,” she reports. “I enjoyed his money and he enjoyed how easily I was impressed by it.” Soon, they’re living together, an arrangement that inspires Ava’s self-aware humor. Why is she “willing to center my emotional life around someone who treated me like a favored armrest”? Is it just his money?
These questions come into sharper focus when she meets Edith, “a Hong Kong local” and aspiring lawyer. When Julian takes a long business trip, Ava and the charismatic Edith go out a couple of times. They’re not sure they’re dating — until they fall into bed together. Their intense love affair will force Ava to make her biggest decisions to date.
This is a sharp-eyed novel that tackles serious ideas. When Ava and Edith argue, they debate “the nexus between monogamy and patriarchy.” Ava and Julian’s lefty father chat about the history of communism.
Which isn’t to suggest that Dolan’s dialogue or characters are leaden. Ava’s clashing impulses make for an engrossing story line, and her observations capture the world-weariness of a generation that’s never known life without the internet. Though part of her is sickened by her reaction, Ava can’t help but applaud the “aesthetic triumph” that is Edith’s Instagram feed: “The images were cool-toned and slightly faded, just enough to give reality a glaze.”
What sort of reality have Ava and her millennial peers inherited? One shaped by economic instability, climate change and other looming catastrophes. Dolan’s novel — wry and jaded, yet sometimes hopeful — understands this volatile era.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Naoise Dolan.
Publisher: Ecco, 256 pages, $27.99.