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Debut novelist Naoise Dolan is no Sally Rooney, for better and worse

Naoise Dolan and her debut novel, "Exciting Times."
(Maria Bianchi / Ecco)

The title of Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, “Exciting Times,” is a clever trick — an ambivalent phrase that reads one way in millennial deadpan, an additional way as an earnest expression. Both intonations feel native to its 22-year-old narrator, Ava.

It would be unfair to judge the young Irish writer’s debut by its American jacket copy, which makes “Exciting Times” sound as if Candace Bushnell had appropriated a mundane subplot of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Ava, an Irish transplant teaching English grammar to wealthy children in Hong Kong, starts sleeping with Julian, a wealthy English banker, but while he’s away on business she falls in love with Edith, a wealthy Hong Kong-born lawyer. Emotional drama ensues. A more conventional book of this description might be dreadful, but Dolan has something more interesting in mind. In fewer than 250 pages, the 28-year-old has captured the touchstone millennial tension between sardonicism and sincerity — the electric ambivalence of figuring out how to be a person in these times.

While the publisher’s synopsis of “Exciting Times” falls short, some critics have suggested a more obvious and tempting comparison. A blurb from the Irish Times exclaims the novel is “likely to fill the Sally-Rooney-shaped hole in many readers’ lives.” Indeed, the two young Irish writers mine similar territory — class, capitalism, queerness, power and the unfathomability of social mores — and Rooney (whose “Normal People,” adapted for Hulu, recently swept quarantine culture) even edited an excerpt in an Irish literary magazine. Stylistically, however, the women have little in common. Where Rooney is all relaxed, freewheeling dialogue, generous sentences and blurry edges, Dolan has buttoned-up elocution, taut phrasing and sharp angles. Dolan imposes on her narrator a strict sense of compartmentalization, established immediately in the book’s three distinct parts.

In adapting her novel “Normal People” for Hulu, Sally Rooney and director Lenny Abrahamson tried to “tap into the silence of the book” to capture its essence.

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“Exciting Times” begins with a section titled “Julian,” following Ava’s relationship with a blasé 28-year-old Oxford-educated Englishman who lives in a posh, sterile apartment, drinks mostly Burgundy and holds centrist political views. Julian is intelligent, albeit aloof, and has nice arms, but he wouldn’t be half as attractive without his money. He takes Ava out to eat, buys her nice things and eventually allows her to move in without paying rent. In the beginning, neither party wants to be in a relationship, but eventually Ava wants more. With Julian, Ava is disaffected, with a chilly wit and deep commitment to irony.

The second section, “Edith,” picks up after Julian has left on business for London, clocking a string of platonic theater dates between Ava and Edith, also 22, which slowly transform into romantic encounters. Edith has beautiful hair, carries expensive bags invariably concealing more practical purses, curates a meticulous Instagram and attends to Ava’s personhood rather than her inscrutable persona. With Edith, Ava is generous, affectionate and accessible. But she doesn’t disclose her relationship to her absent flatmate or Edith. They find out, of course, and the novel concludes with “Edith and Julian.” Spoiler: Dolan does not succumb to the lurid tropes of love triangles.

“Exciting Times” is a funny novel (both haha and weird), resisting the pull of melodrama in favor of a sharp point of view and an intense concern with language. On their first outing, Julian asks if Ava has dated in Hong Kong yet. She replies, “not really,” musing that “‘yet’ did contradictory things as an adverb and there were more judicious choices he could have made.” While teaching a group of 7-year-olds, she interrogates the purpose of exact nouns like “adult,” “child” and “teenager,” finding it “depressing that the way we specified ourselves — the way we made ourselves precise and interesting — was by pinpointing our developmental stage and likely distance from mortality.”

In many cases these dissections are clear-eyed and vivifying, arriving at a deeper set of emotional meanings. At their best, such moments elevate the book from a tale of amorous hijinks into something more nuanced. In other cases, it can feel as if the author has sashayed in to perform a high-wire act of semiotics — which not only hinders the narrative flow but risks alienating the reader, even as it reinforces Ava’s neuroticism and insecurity.

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“This exchange had catechized Julian on several points,” Ava thinks. “I’d told him that (a) he had a prestigious and well-recompensed job, (b) I didn’t, and (c) to break the monotony of his status, he liked women with lip; women other men found waspish, and who found those men feeble, but who were quite at home in his living room — or one of them was, there in archetype and not as someone he specifically cared for, her hauteur being something they had in common.”

Somewhat peculiarly listed on Amazon UK as a No. 1 bestseller in the category of “political humour,” “Exciting Times” is indeed engaged with the ways class, inequality and politics manifest in social life. In an exchange with an older, more affluent frenemy over tea, Ava notes the woman’s mispronunciation of “thé au citron” and becomes engrossed in the possibility of changing her own order so she might pronounce it correctly, which would “prickle” her companion “without letting her feel cathartically wronged.” Eventually, Ava orders “the lemon tea” to make the woman feel bad for using French in the first place but then clarifies with the correct French pronunciation. The exchange concludes with the two splitting the bill.

This evisceration of class tension feels scalpel-sharp; would that all of Ava’s observations were. “Staying in his flat was possibly a rupture from the capitalist notion that I was only worth something if I paid my own way economically,” Ava thinks, somewhat less subtly, on Page 19. “Or maybe it made me a bad feminist. I could puzzle it out once the experience had passed.” I can’t be sure I wouldn’t have tossed the book aside if it weren’t for my professional obligation, partly because I’ve puzzled through a similar quandary and already know the answer: If the phrase “rupture from the capitalist notion” had been in my 22-year old vocabulary, I would have hightailed it out of Julian’s apartment the first time I wondered if he might be a Patrick Bateman cosplayer.

But I’m glad I stuck around longer (with Ava, not the guy). That tangle of revulsion and attraction to Ava’s perpetual ambivalence — and the accompanying desire to reach out from this side of the looking glass and gently assure her this is simply a condition of being human — is one reason to keep reading. And though Dolan is still be figuring it out how to be a writer (Aren’t we all?), there is reason to anticipate whatever she might do next and to suppose she might one day fill a hole in readers’ lives shaped only like herself.

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Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans.

Exciting Times
Naoise Dolan
Ecco: 256 pages, $28


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