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Review: In Dolly Alderton's 'Good Material,' readers feel heartbreak unfold in real-time

Is heartbreak a universal language?

It's certainly what Dolly Alderton is getting at in her new romance novel "Good Material" (Knopf, 368 pp., ★★★½ out of four). In it, the author of popular memoirs “Everything I Know About Love” (now a series on Peacock) and “Dear Dolly” returns with a bittersweet comedy romance.

Our narrator is Andy, a down-on-his-luck, floundering comedian in London who comes home from a vacation with his girlfriend of almost four years only to find out she’s breaking up with him.

Now he’s 35, newly single and crashing in his married friends’ attic while his peers are getting engaged or having their third babies. While his comedy friends are winning festival awards, he can’t get his agent to call him back, and he has begun to document a growing bald spot in a photo album called simply “BALD.”

He’s also a serial monogamist who notoriously takes breakups hard (according to his high school girlfriend) and feels “locked in a prison of (his) own nostalgia.” Bon Iver and Damien Rice are his mood music for “maximum wallowing.” Ted Moseby from "How I Met Your Mother" would love this guy.

Dolly Alderton's novel "Good Material" is "a story about heartbreak and friendship, and how to survive both."
Dolly Alderton's novel "Good Material" is "a story about heartbreak and friendship, and how to survive both."

“Good Material” reads like the precursor to “Everything I Know About Love.” Before the wisdom, before the lessons, before the growth – Andy is the target demographic for the life advice Alderton offered up in her 2018 memoir.

Alderton drops us smack in the middle of what Andy calls “The Madness.” We follow him through the crying-too-much phase, the drinking-too-much phase, an eye-roll-inducing no-carb diet and the obsessive text archive read-through that’s as brutal as it is realistic. We may full-body cringe at Andy’s social media stalk-coping, but we’ve all been there. It’s a will-they-won’t-they story in Andy’s eyes – he likens the breakup to John Lennon’s infamous “Lost Weekend” (she's John, he’s Yoko).

Meanwhile, on every other page, we’re switching between wanting to tenderly hug him and whack-a-mole him, screaming “Please go to therapy!” Or, at the very least, begging him to grow as a comedian; to use this “good material” in his sets. As a friend tells Andy, “A broken heart is a jester’s greatest prop.”

It seems fitting, then, that he finds himself in the middle of a massive online humiliation. And while we do feel for him, it leaves us hoping that maybe, just maybe, this will push him to come up with a new comedy routine. But that’s a tale as old as time – a white man with a comfortable platform to be mediocre who only has to grow when his reputation is one foot in the grave.

Hilarious pitfalls and unfortunate run-ins come abruptly and unexpectedly throughout the book, but the most important lesson arrives so gradually that you almost miss it. More than just the old mantra of "change doesn't happen overnight," Andy teaches us that growth is there all along – even if we can’t see it yet. That may not make “The Madness” any easier, but it’s comforting to know that one day, we can turn around and realize those baby steps were in the service of something greater.

Alderton's writing shines its brightest in the last 60 pages of the book when she uses a surprising and sharp juxtaposition to put the story to bed. Her ability to create complex characters and tell the story with a varied perspective is masterful, giving Andy (and us as readers) the closure that’s needed from this heartbreak. Perfect endings are nearly impossible to find – especially in the breakup genre – but this comes pretty dang close.

To quote the great Nicole Kidman, in her iconic AMC prologue, “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Book Review: Dolly Alderton's 'Good Material' hurts so good