“An absolute knock-out. Wickedly funny and, at turns, both cynical and sincere… feels like your very favorite friend.” —Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Malibu Rising
Nina Dean is not especially bothered that she's single. She owns her own apartment, she's about to publish her second book, she has a great relationship with her ex-boyfriend, and enough friends to keep her social calendar full and her hangovers plentiful. And when she downloads a dating app, she does the seemingly impossible: She meets a great guy on her first date. Max is handsome and built like a lumberjack; he has floppy blond hair and a stable job. But more surprising than anything else, Nina and Max have chemistry. Their conversations are witty and ironic, they both hate sports, they dance together like fools, they happily dig deep into the nuances of crappy music, and they create an entire universe of private jokes and chemical bliss.
But when Max ghosts her, Nina is forced to deal with everything she's been trying so hard to ignore: her father's dementia is getting worse, and so is her mother's denial of it; her editor hates her new book idea; and her best friend from childhood is icing her out. Funny, tender, and eminently, movingly relatable, Ghosts is a whip-smart tale of relationships and modern life.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||7 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.”
Living in suburban North London was nothing but an act of pragmatism for my parents. Whenever I asked them why they chose to leave East London for the suburbs when I was ten, they would refer to functionality: it was a bit safer, you could buy a bit more space, it was near the city, it was near lots of motorways and close to schools. They talked about setting up their life in Pinner as if they had been looking for a hotel that was close to the airport for an early flight—convenient, anonymous, fuss-free, nothing special but it got the job done. Nothing about where my parents lived brought them any sensory pleasure or cause for relish not the land-scape, nor the history of the place, not the parks, the architecture, the community or culture. They lived in the suburbs because it was close to things. They had built their home and therefore entire life around convenience.
When we were together, Joe often used his northernness in argu-ments against me, as a way of proving he was more real than I was; more down to earth and therefore more likely to be right. It was one of my least favourite things about him—the way he lazily outsourced his integrity to Yorkshire, so that romantic implications of miners and moors would do all the hard work for him. In the early stages of our relationship, he used to make me feel like we had grown up in separate galaxies because his mum had worked as a hairdresser in Sheffield and mine was a receptionist in Harrow. The first time he took me home to his parents’ house—a modest three-bed in a sub-urb of Sheffield—I realized just what a lie I’d been told. If I hadn’t known I was in Yorkshire, I would have sworn we were driving around the pebbledash-fronted-leaded-window gap between the end of London and the beginning of Hertfordshire where I’d spent my adolescence. Joe’s cul-de- sac was the same as mine, the houses were all the same, his fridge was full of the same fruit-corner yogurts and ready-to-bake garlic bread. He’d had a bike just like mine, to spend his teenage weekends going up and down streets of identical red-roof houses just like I did. He was taken to PizzaExpress for his birthday like I was. The secret was out. “No more making out that we’ve had completely different upbringings, Joe,” I said to him on the train home. “No more pretending you belong in a song written by Jarvis Cocker about being in love with a woman in a tabard. You no more belong in that song than I belong in a Chas and Dave one. We grew up in matching suburbs.”
In recent years, I’d found myself craving the familiarity of home. The high streets I knew, with their high density of dentists, hair-dressers and bookies, and total lack of independent coffee shops. The long walk from the station to my parents’ house. The women with matching long bobs, the balding men, the teenagers in hoodies. The absence of individualism; the peaceful acquiescence to mundanity. Young adulthood had quickly turned into just plain adulthood—with its daily list of choices to confirm who I was, how I voted, who my broadband provider was—and returning to the scene of my teenage life for an afternoon felt like a brief holiday back in time. When I was in Pinner, I could be seventeen again, just for a day. I could pretend that my world was myopic and my choices meaningless and the pos-sibilities that were ahead of me were wide open and boundless.
Mum answered the door like she always answered the door—in a way that demonstrably made the point that her life was very busy. She did an apologetic wonky smile as she opened it to me, portable landline pressed up to her ear on her shoulder. “Sorry,” she mouthed, and rolled her eyes. She was wearing a pair of black jersey-fabric bottoms that didn’t look assertive enough to be trou-sers, weren’t tight enough to be leggings and weren’t slouchy enough to be pyjamas. She wore a grey marl round-neck T- shirt and was decorated in her base-coat of jewellery: thick gold bracelet, one gold bangle, pearl stud earrings, snake chain gold necklace, gold wedding band. My guess was she was coming from or going to some form of physical exercise—my mum had become obsessed with physical exercise since she turned fifty, but I don’t think it changed her body by even half a pound. She was wrapped in a post-menopausal layer of softness, a small bag under her chin, a thicker middle, flesh that now spilt over the back of her bra, visible through her T- shirt. And she was gorgeous. The sort of big-bovine-eyed gorgeous that is not hugely exciting but evokes familiar magnetism in everyone—like an open fire or a bunch of pink roses or a golden cocker spaniel. Her espresso-brown bob, although sliced with grey strands, was lus-ciously thick and her golden highlights shimmered under the light of the overhead IKEA lamp. I inherited almost nothing of my looks from my mother.
“Yeah, fine,” she said into the phone, beckoning me into the hall-way. “Great, well, let’s do coffee next week then. Just send me the dates. I’ll bring you that teach-yourself-Tarot kit I was telling you about. No, not at all, you can keep it actually. QVC, so easy enough. Okay, okay. Speak then, bye!” She hung up the phone and gave me a hug, before holding me at arm’s length and examining my fringe. “This is new,” she said, looking curiously at it, like it was 3 down on a crossword.
“Yes,” I said, putting down my handbag and removing my shoes (everyone had to remove their shoes on arrival, the rule was more stringent here than at the Blue Mosque). “Got it before my birthday. Thought it would be good for covering my thirty-two-year-old lines on my thirty- two- year- old forehead.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, flicking it gingerly. “You don’t need some mop on your head for that, you just need some effective foundation.”
I smiled, unoffended but unamused. I had got used to the fact that Mum was disappointed by quite how ungirly her daughter was. She would have loved a girl with whom she could have gone shopping for holiday clothes and gossiped about face primer. When we were teenagers, and Katherine came round, Mum would offer her all her old jewellery and handbags, and they’d sift through them together like two gal pals at a department store. She fell deeply in love with Lola the first time they met, purely on the basis that they both felt particularly passionate about the same face highlighter.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“Reading,” she said.
I looked through the French doors of the living room and saw the profile of my dad in his bottle-green armchair. His feet up on the foot-stool, a large mug of tea on the side table next to him. His strong chin and long nose protruding—the chin and nose that also belong to me—as if they were competing to get to the same finish line in a race
There was seventeen years’ difference in age between Mum and Dad. They had met when Dad was the deputy head of an inner-city state school and Mum was sent there by her secretarial agency to be the receptionist. She was twenty-four, he was forty-one. The gap between their personalities was as large as their age gap. Dad was sensitive, gentle, inquisitive, introspective and intellectual—there was almost nothing that didn’t interest him. Mum was practical, proactive, logistical, straightforward and authoritative. There was almost nothing she didn’t involve herself in.
I took a moment to take him in from behind the glass doors. From here, he was still just my dad as he’d always been, reading the Observer, ready to tell me about where rubbish goes in China or ten things I may not have known about Wallis Simpson or the plight of the endangered falcon. My dad who could instantly recognize me— not the face of me, but everything of who I was—in a nanosecond: the name of my childhood imaginary friend, my dissertation sub-ject, my favourite character from my favourite book and the road names of everywhere I’ve ever lived. When I looked at his face now, I mostly saw my dad, but I sometimes saw something else in his eyes that unsettled me—sometimes it looked like everything he under-stood had been cut into pieces and he was trying to configure them into a collage that made sense.
Two years ago, Dad had a stroke. It only took a couple of months after he had recovered for us to realize that he wasn’t entirely better. My dad, always so sharp and cerebral, had slowed down. He’d forget the names of family members and close friends. His easy confidence and ability to make decisions dwindled. He’d regularly wander off on days out and get lost. He often couldn’t remember the road he lived on. Initially, Mum and I wrote it off as an ageing brain, unable to face the possibility of something more serious. Then, one day, Mum got a call from a stranger to tell her that Dad had been seen driving around the same large, busy roundabout for twenty minutes. Eventually, someone managed to get him to pull over—he’d had no idea where to turn off. We went to the GP, he did a range of physical tests, cognitive assessments and MRI scans. The possibility we were dreading was confirmed.
“Hi, Dad,” I said, walking towards him. He looked up from the p ap er.
“Hello, you!” he said.
“Don’t stand up.” I bent down to give him a hug. “Anything inter-esting to tell me?”
“There’s a new film adaptation of Persuasion,” he said, holding up the review to me.
“Ah,” I said. “The thinking man’s Austen.”
“I’m going to go help Mum with lunch.”
“All right, love,” he said, before reopening the newspaper and arranging himself back into the repose I knew so well.
When I went into the kitchen, Mum was chopping broccoli florets that were collecting next to a pile of sliced kiwis. From a speaker, a woman was talking loudly and slowly about conforming to male sexual desire.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s the audiobook of Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin.”
“It’s . . . what?” I asked, turning the volume down a few notches.
“Andrea Dworkin. She’s a famous feminist. You’d recognize her, quite a big girl, but not much of a sense of humour. Very clever woman, she— ”
“I know who Andrea Dworkin is, I meant why are you listening to her audiobook?”
“For Reading Between the Wines.”
“Is that your book club you’ve told me about?”
She sighed exasperatedly and took a cucumber out of the fridge.
“It’s not a book club, Nina, it’s a literary salon.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well,” she said with a slight curl of her lip that couldn’t con-ceal the glee she felt at having to, once again, explain the difference between a book club and a literary salon. “Me and some of the girls have decided to start a bi-monthly meeting where we talk about ideas rather than just the book itself, so it’s much less prescriptive. Each salon has a theme and includes discussions, poetry readings and per-sonal sharing that relate to the theme.”
“What’s the theme of the next one?”
“The theme is: ‘Is all heterosexual sex rape?’ ”
“Right. And who is attending?”
“Annie, Cathy, Sarah from my running club, Gloria, Gloria’s gay cousin, Martin, Margaret, who volunteers with me at the charity shop. Everyone brings a dish. I’m making halloumi skewers,” she said, transporting the chopping board to the blender and piling the assortment of fruit and vegetables into it
“Why this sudden interest in feminism?”
She hit the button on the machine, letting out a cacophony of buzzing as the mix pulverized to a pale-green gunk.
“I don’t know if I’d call it sudden,” she shouted over the top of the electronic roar. She turned the blender off and poured the fibrous- looking liquid into a pint glass.
“That sounds great, Mum,” I relented. “I think it’s really cool to be so engaged and curious.”
“It is,” she said. “And I’m the only one who has a spare room, so I’ve said we can use it for Reading Between the Wines meetings.”
“You don’t have a spare room.”
“Your dad’s study.”
“Dad needs his study.”
“It will still be there for him, it just doesn’t make sense to have a whole room in this house that’s only occasionally used, like we’re living in Blenheim Palace.”
“What about his books?”
“I’ll move them to the shelves down here.”
“I’ve got everything important on file. There’s a lot of stuff that can be thrown away.”
“Please let me go through it,” I said with the slight whine of a stroppy child. “It might be important to him. It might be important for us further down the line when we need as much as possible to jog his memory, to remind him of—”
“Of course, of course,” she said, taking a sip of her smoothie with her nostrils flaring in displeasure. “It’s all upstairs in a few piles, you’ll see it on the landing.”
“Okay, thank you,” I said, offering her a muted smile as a peace offering. I took a deep, invisible yoga breath. “What else has been going on?”
“Nothing really. Oh, I’ve decided to change my name.”
“I’ve never liked Nancy, it’s too old-fashioned.”
“Don’t you think it’s weird to change it now? Everyone knows you as Nancy, it’s too late for a new name to catch on.”
“I’m too old is what you’re saying,” she said.
“No, I’m just saying a more appropriate time to workshop a new name would have been your first week at secondary school, probably not in your fifties.”
“Well, I’ve decided to change it and I’ve looked into how to do it and it’s very easy, so my mind’s made up.”
“And what are you changing it to?”
“But,” I took another deep yoga breath, “Mandy isn’t all that dis-similar to Nancy, is it? I mean, they sort of rhyme.”
“No they don’t.”
“They do, it’s called assonance.”
“I knew you’d be like this. I knew you’d find a way to lecture me like you always do. I have no idea why this should cause you any trouble, I just want to love my name.”
“Mum!” I said pleadingly. “I’m not lecturing you. You must be able to see this is quite a strange thing to announce from nowhere.”
“It’s not from nowhere, I’ve always told you I like the name Mandy! I have always said to you what a stylish and fun name I think it is.”
“Okay, it is stylish and fun, you’re right, but the other thing to consider,” I lowered my voice, “is that this might not be the best time for Dad to get his head round his wife of thirty-five years having a completely different first name.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it’s a very simple change,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be this huge thing.”
“It’s just going to confuse him.”
“I can’t talk about this now,” she said. “I’m meeting Gloria for Vinyasa Flow.”
“Are you not eating with us? I’ve come all the way here for lunch.”
“There’s loads of food in the house. You’re the cook, after all. I’ll be back in a few hours,” she said, picking up her keys.
I went back in to see Dad, still engrossed by the paper.
“Yes, Bean?” he said, turning his head round to me. I felt the glow of relief that came with him using his childhood nickname for me. Like all good childhood nicknames, it had had many nonsensical and convoluted iterations—what was once Ninabean turned into Mr. Bean, Bambeanie, Beaniebean, then finally just Bean.
“Mum’s gone out so I’m going to make us some lunch in a bit. How do you feel about a frittata?”
“Frittata,” he repeated. “Now what’s that when it’s at home?”
“It’s a tarty omelette. Imagine an omelette on a night out.”
He laughed. “Lovely.”
“I’m just going to sort through some things upstairs first, then I’ll make it. Do you maybe want a piece of toast to keep you going? Or something else?” I looked at his face and instantly regretted not mak-ing the question simpler. For the most part, he was still completely capable of making quick decisions, but occasionally I could see him get lost in potential answers and I wished I’d saved his confusion by saying “Toast, yes or no?”
“Maybe,” he said, frowning slightly. “I don’t know, I’ll wait a bit.”
“Okay, just let me know.”
I dragged the three boxes into my bedroom, which hadn’t changed since I moved out over a decade ago and looked like a museum rep-lica of how teenage girls lived in the early to mid-noughties. Lilac walls, photo collages of school friends on the wardrobe and a row of frayed, greying festival wristbands hanging from my mirror that Katherine and I had collected together. I sifted through the papers on the floor, most of them marking time and plans but no feelings or relationships: wedges of Filofax pages of dentist appointments and term times from the late nineties, stacks of old newspapers contain-ing stories that must have caught his interest. There were letters and cards that I took off the scrap heap: a garrulous postcard from his late brother, my Uncle Nick, tightly packed with complaints about the food being too oily on Paxos; a card from one of Dad’s former students thanking him for his help with his Oxford application, and a photo of him beaming on graduation day outside Magdalen Col-lege. Mum was right, he didn’t need these relics of mundanity, but I understood his inclination to hold on to them. I too had shoeboxes of cinema tickets from first dates with Joe and utility bills from flats I no longer lived in. I’d never known why they were important, but they were—they felt like proof of life lived, in case a time came when it was needed, like a driving licence or a passport. Perhaps Dad had always anticipated, somehow, that he should download the passing of time to papers, Filofax pages, letters and postcards, in case those files inside him ever got wiped.
Suddenly, I heard the piercing cry of the smoke alarm. I rushed downstairs, following the smell of burning. In the kitchen stood Dad, coughing over a smoking toaster, removing charcoal-edged pages of the Observer from its slots.
“Dad!” I shouted over the thin, shrill beep, flapping my hands to try to break up the smog. “What are you doing?”
He looked at me with a jolt, as if he had snapped out of a dream.
Ribbons of smoke rose from the singed piece of folded newspaper in his hand. He gazed down at the toaster, then back up to me.
“I don’t know,” he said.