Naoise Dolan's Exciting Times (opens in new tab) drew instant comparisons to Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends (opens in new tab) (2017) and Normal People (opens in new tab) (2019)—perhaps because Dolan and Rooney are both brilliant Irish writers who instill a dry sense of humor in their characters. Still, Dolan deserves her own praise for her debut novel that centers on a millennial Irish expat named Ava who teaches abroad in Hong Kong, and ends up in a love triangle with a banker, Julian, and a lawyer, Edith.
Overall, the #ReadWithMC community had trouble relating to Ava, mainly due to her passive aggressiveness and inability to speak the truth to fellow characters in the book. However, they did enjoy the political and historical references throughout the novel, albeit having to do a bit of research on the topics themselves. Don't the best books teach us something we don't know?
Though the novel had mixed reviews, one thing readers did agree on is that Dolan is a unique and smart writer who they'll continue to support throughout her career. Find out exactly what #ReadWithMC loved and didn't love about Exciting Times, below.
"Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan follows a young 20-something as she flees Dublin for Hong Kong in search of a life that matches her desires. It finds her teaching English while abroad and indecisive about two lovers.
I have mixed feelings on this one.
The prose is interesting; the way Dolan writes the dialogue is natural; the conversations back home with family felt real in a way that many writing about calling home don't. They were playful, charged, strained. Politics, grammar, and morality are explored with quick jabs and sharp wording. But the intellectual aura inserted across the novel felt taut and occasionally reaching. I rolled my eyes a few times.
The story centers on conflict within Ava, the main character. This can be really interesting territory for a novel, but it didn't completely work for me here. It read as slow-paced indecisiveness. I was more interested in her thoughts and experiences with class than her relationships, to be honest, even as they played proxy for amplifying her feelings around status.
Something small I enjoyed was the depiction of Ava's queerness. It felt authentic, less an added 'interesting' point, but a way of being that felt effortless. Often when I read a queer novel some of it feels forced; this was seamless. I related to it immensely.
I think it's easy to dislike this and dismiss it; on the surface, it's a young woman who can't make up her mind while living for free in someone's flat. But there are nuances that made me literally stop reading and think about what Dolan had wrote. I don't do that often. So while the storyline and characters didn't do it for me, I'm interested to see what Dolan puts out next.
RIYL: Sally Rooney. Honestly. I know everyone says this, but there are so many similarities I saw between this and Normal People. Rooney writes more stream of consciousness and this is more tightly bound, but the emotions and ways of being felt so similar." —@booktrax
"Exciting Times follows 22-year-old Ava as she leaves Ireland to teach in Hong Kong. Here, she grapples with her feelings towards Julian, a rich, witty but largely emotionless banker, and Edith, an ambitious and striking lawyer.
Ava’s character provides us with biting social commentary. She dissects language and her humor is so deadpan I sometimes read sentences twice. She is in a constant battle of inner conflict—total social apathy, whilst silently scathing of her prejudiced workplace. She creates her own isolation, whilst being envious of those who are not lonely. She hinges on the idea of a strong female, but then plays out the stereotype. This book really does navigate the muddle of thought and inaction cleverly.
With a similar rhythm of detachment and sparsity found in Rooney and Ottessa’s writing, I can see why comparisons are being drawn, and I don’t think this comparison does Dolan any disservice. (I mean, I love them both and what good company to be in!)
On a personal level, I found Ava’s character very insular and detached, but the moments that worked their way under my skin were those where she drafted text messages which she didn’t send. I think these were used as great insights. Regardless of whether this will be a standout favorite for you, I believe we can all appreciate the hype it has whipped up and the skill of Dolan’s writing." —@thefamilybookshelf
"Exciting Times is a sharp, character-driven story about the complicated relationships of three 20-somethings.
The story follows Ava, a quick witted, self-loathing Irish 22-year-old teacher and Julian, an almost-30-year-old British banker, both living as expats in Hong Kong. About a third into the story, when I was starting to wonder where everything was going, we’re introduced to Edith, a lawyer from Hong Kong who starts to capture Ava’s attention away from Julian.
Ultimately, this one was a miss for me. I wanted to like it, but the lack of plot and my lack of affection for the main character made it fall short. Characters who bottle up and won’t say how they feel drive me crazy, and Ava was no exception here. Every time she typed out a note in her phone to send to the other characters, only to delete it, my soul died a little.
Naoise Dolan has been compared to Sally Rooney, and I definitely think fans of Conversations With Friends may like this one more than I did!" —@bookish_molly
"Much like Normal People by Sally Rooney, I expect there will be polarizing opinions on Exciting Times. If you’re looking for likable and well-rounded characters, a happy love story, and everything packaged up in a neat box, this isn’t it.
If you love prose sprinkled with sarcasm, characters who could use some serious self-improvement, and complicated love stories, then Exciting Times will likely appeal to you. Given my absolute adoration of Rooney, it’s no surprise I loved this debut by a writer who counts Rooney as an inspiration and mentor.
Have I compared this book to Sally Rooney enough times yet?? Because truly, if you love her books, don’t sleep on this one. Naoise Dolan will be an auto-buy for me in the future." —@kelseylovesbooks
"I have to say I really liked this debut novel by Naoise Dolan. I found her style of writing very unusual and can see why people would compare her to Sally Rooney based on that. However, this isn’t another Normal People and don’t expect it to be.
Exciting Times follows Ava, a young Irish woman living in Hong Kong and her relationship with Julian and Edith. Both are well-educated and earning a good living. However, as a TEFL teacher, Ava struggles with a myriad of contemplative problems and inner issues as she comes to terms with her feelings for both Julian and Edith.
As I started reading this novel, I realized I had to take my time with it. The story is told through Ava’s eyes and she often diverges on topics, which are not always explained. However, I soon grew to really like this, as I became used to her inner thoughts. I often had to re-read passages, as subtext also plays a huge part in the book. I laughed out loud at so many parts, especially in conversations with her parents! I also really loved how the author addresses the ‘Irish English’ references in the novel and wondered if non-Irish readers understand them.
I’m not sure how many of you will actually love this novel. It’s not plot-driven and Ava as a character distances herself from people in the book, so she’s not intrinsically likeable. She is also obsessive and over-analytical in her thoughts about both Julian and Edith. However, it’s the author’s style of writing that really grew on me. It’s unusual and contemplative and just very different. I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend if you want to read something that’s not the normal style." —@thereaderignites
"Okay wow, what a great book! I took some time getting used to the narrator’s voice, but once I did, I became completely absorbed in Ava’s story. After graduating from Trinity, Dubliner Ava moves to Hong Kong to teach English—the only thing she is qualified to do—and gets hired mostly because she is white. Throughout the book, Ava makes incisive observations about the legacy of colonialism in both HK and Ireland, in addition to funny musings about the rules of English grammar she teaches her students, but can hardly explain, let alone justify, herself.
The story follows Ava through two loosely defined relationships—with Julian, a wealthy British banker, and with Edith, a Hong Kong born, Cambridge-educated lawyer. It’s a story about intimacy, vulnerability, being alone, and being different versions of yourself with different people. It also turned into a really beautiful queer love story, taking turns I hadn’t anticipated at the outset of the novel. Naoise Dolan is in her late 20s and has often been compared to Sally Rooney. I definitely felt—and enjoyed—that similar sparseness of language employed by both authors to cut to the crux of an emotion. The book is fast-paced, but with finely-wrought moments of stillness. I can’t wait to read what Dolan writes next.
This book also brought back so many memories from my trip to Hong Kong with my friends after college graduation (swipe!). Dolan writes about some of the social and political changes happening on the island, and it’s really interesting to consider this novel a time capsule for some of the last, perhaps, 'golden years' of the Anglo-European expat life in Hong Kong. I would have liked for Dolan to explore the experiences of native Hong Kong residents—for instance, she allude to coffin homes and student protests without going into detail. It’s a Euro-centric story, despite its Asian setting." —@brigittesbookshelf
"Lovers of Sally Rooney will absolutely devour this book. I am a huge Sally Rooney fan, ergo, this book was such a treat for me. I love the unconventional, the interpersonal, the relatable *but not talked about,* and this book had all of that and more. I can’t believe it was written so geniously by someone so young. Naoise is an author I know I’ll follow throughout her writing career, and that excites me. I hope you’ll give her debut a try—it was exceedingly worth it!" —@compulsivereadersblog
"Aimless Ava moves from Dublin to Hong Kong looking to find purpose for her life. Ava is pulled into the orbit of wealthy, privileged banker Julian who comes from London. When he leaves to go work in London again, Ava is left wondering what their exact relationship status is, caught between being a sugar baby or being Julian’s girlfriend. Shortly after, she meets native Hong Kong-turned-boarding-school-broad, Edith. Similarly to her feelings about Julian, Ava becomes obsessed with Edith, to the point where she begins wondering if Edith will be her girlfriend.
Which path does Ava end up taking? This book may be short, but it packs a huge punch. The novel goes on to discuss the history of colonialism by the British of the Irish and Hong Kong. It would definitely have been helpful to have a general idea of the geopolitics between Ireland/Britain/Hong Kong. I personally found that to be utterly fascinating. Unfortunately, I can’t give this book the raving review I want to because not only is Ava aimless, but she’s SO passive-aggressive within her relationships." —@bookcrazyblogger
"The angst of your twenties...trying to figure out who you are can be exhausting—you’re trying on identities like outfits. And sometimes you’re just not sure anything looks good and nothing quite fits right.
Dolan has a great eye and I was poised over my Kindle highlighting witty dialogue and observations more than a few times. My main problem was Ava. I need to have a protagonist I can rally behind—and Ava’s self-pitying rants just made me irritated and wanting her to find a good therapist. She spends so much time telling us how lacking she is that I started to believe her. That doesn’t make for a worthy heroine...or it might make me 'too old' to empathize.
I am not in my twenties although still full of angst. Exciting Times? It was ok, but I was disappointed and wanted a little more." —@suzylew_bookreview
"Love triangle. Millennials floundering in the realms of the heart. Straight romance. Queer romance. Sally Rooney-endorsed. I have a feeling this one is going to be popping up on lots of summer 2020 must read lists!
Dry humor can be hard to execute on the page, but Naoise Dolan does so effortlessly and it’s evident from the very first pages. Her sentences are sharp and confident, especially for a debut. The characters are refreshing, I think particularly for me because they are not American, thus allowing for some exploration of how differing cultures analyze and observe class, race, and politics. It’s a layered book because of these factors, and it works in the story’s favor. Instead of just a romance or coming-of-age narrative, Dolan dives a bit deeper to probe what we carry into the relationships we form (like our personal politics and gendered expectations) and how those either weigh us down or perhaps end up setting us free.
Exciting Times lost me a bit in the second half with its pacing. Rushed in some places, dragged out in others. At some point, the millennial-ness of it all became too much for me and I felt my eyes glaze over a bit. Regardless, I encourage you to seek out Exciting Times for yourself because I know so many of you are hungry for reading experiences that capture the complexities of love, personal politics, and the precariousness that comes with being young and lost and in love. I think I may be experiencing a personal jadedness with these narratives that prevented me from fully enjoying my reading. Do put it on your TBR and let me know what you think." —@book_gal
This is one of the hottest debut authors of 2020, described as the new Sally Rooney and perfect for fans of Animals and Trick Mirror. I personally see the appeal for Sally Rooney’s fans (and that’s why I chose it as my next rec), but I also think that Dolan deserves praise of her own. Exciting Times is a smart and funny book that deals with class, money, bisexuality, and the uncertainties of modern love through the eyes of a narrator that is scared to be loved.
Ava is 22 years old and teaches English to rich kids in Hong Kong. Julian is a banker who likes spending time with Ava, but incapable (or simply unwilling) to express his feelings for her. Edith is a local, sophisticated, and enthusiastic lawyer who falls in love with Ava and isn’t afraid to say so. Ava feels safer, more shielded from harm with Julian, but happier with Edith.
The story explores the freedoms and dangers of modern love and expression through Ava’s relations with these two people and her teaching of the often non-sensical semantics of the English language to her students. It’s a great pick for everyone who’s sensitive and introspective, but also cynical and scared of relationships." —@cc_bookclub
"There is definitely some exciting fiction coming out of Ireland and it's hard not to compare this book to Sally Rooney's work. But while it had a similar vibe and a cast of millennials, it definitely had more of a dry and cutting tone to it. I wasn't immediately sucked in—I think when Edith entered the picture, I became a lot more engaged. Perhaps because Ava's first love interest, Julian, uncomfortably reminded me of someone from my past! Eek! But that's what I really enjoyed about this—the characters felt real and the uncertainty and non-committal situations also felt very real. I loved the IG stalking references, so current and fun to read. I also think the teaching English abroad aspect was well-researched and spot on. Always fun reading the #readwithmc selection!" —@readtotheend
"If I had to describe this book to someone in two sentences it would be like this: Eleanor Oliphant and Normal People got together and had a baby. Nine months later, out popped their new child known as Exciting Times.
Ava has left her life in Ireland behind to teach English to rich children in Hong Kong. While there, Ava meets Julian, a rich banker from London, who invites her to move into his home. When Julian returns to London for six months for work, Ava meets Edith, a smart and beautiful Hong Kong lawyer. When the two begin a romance, Ava pretends Julian is only a roommate. When Julian plans to return to Hong Kong, Ava must come clean to Edith and decide for herself which life she wants to live: one with romance and adventure or money and comfort.
Reasons to read…
1. You liked the writing style of Normal People. In my opinion, Exciting Times reads very similar.
2. You like an unreliable narrator (think Eleanor Oliphant) as you read.
3. Stories that focus on social issues such as class and LGBTQ+ are of interest to you.
4. Books that read fast, cut fluff, and get to the point are your jam.
Reasons to avoid…
1. You didn’t like Normal People or are not a fan of Sally Roony’s writing style (like, I read Normal People a year ago and still am unsure how I feel…)
2. You’re not a fan of unreliable narrators (hi...it me)
3. You get annoyed when a book includes references to politics/political issues/cultural references and you have NO IDEA what they mean (lots of info on politics in Ireland and Hong Kong, neither of which I knew OR cared to Google)
While this style is definitely not for me, if you were a fan of Normal People and Eleanor Oliphant, I can see you really enjoying this read and encourage you to try. It reads fairly quickly and isn’t long, so would make a great summer poolside story!" —@what_leah_reads
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Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.
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