Reassess every relationship you’ve ever had before it’s too late

‘Reading is a celebration of the mystery of ourselves,’ according to Elizabeth Strout, who writes to help readers understand themselves and other people. In Oh William!, Strout resurrects Lucy Barton, the enigmatic heroine of a previous novel, setting her on a mission to get to know William, her first husband. This is Strout’s third outing for Lucy, who also reappeared in Anything is Possible, a collection of interlinked stories about the residents of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy’s hometown. Now in her early sixties and newly widowed, Lucy is good friends with William, who is on wife number three — Estelle, a woman 22 years younger than him. ‘And that was no

Why do some women find killers irresistible?

Women who fall in love with killers have always fascinated and repulsed me. What drives them? Do they think they can ‘save’ these men? Are they secret sadists, acting by proxy? Are they masochists, getting a cheap thrill from communicating with someone who has tortured a fellow woman to death? Bonnie and Clyde syndrome, also known as hybristophilia, puts the case that, as an evolutionary reproductive trait, some women can be drawn to ‘bad boys’ who are prepared to break rules/laws and are therefore ‘stronger’. I was pleased to see that Denmark has now banned prisoners serving life sentences from starting romantic relationships while in jail. The ban was introduced

A podcast that will rescue your relationship: Where Should We Begin? reviewed

Let me give you a free piece of relationship advice: just break up. If it’s more work than pleasure, if your heart sinks when they call, if you catch yourself writing ‘have sex’ on your to-do list, break up. Life is short, death is certain, relationships are for loving in, and if you can’t be with the one you love, you can at least leave the one you’re with. I give this advice because I know that people in bad relationships don’t take it. They are like those evacuation refuseniks, stumping around on the volcanic hillside, saying they’ve lived there 20 years and they’ll be damned if the whole thing

For lovers who live apart, it’s been a long year

Spring is coming, the roadmap out of lockdown is here, and the faint signs of an End To All This can be seen, in smoke rings, on the horizon. I scan the list of freedoms with impatience: schools, if you must, parental visits in parks, fine, fine, but when will I get to see my girlfriend indoors? If you express some level of frustration with lockdown life, the worry is that you will be taken for someone who believes the right to spread plague is enshrined in the Magna Carta or that society took a wrong turn with the suspiciously foreign antics of Louis Pasteur. I am keen neither to

What’s happened to all the lesbians?

As a proud resident of Sussex, I had to laugh when I heard that Facebook had threatened to ban references to Devil’s Dyke — the 100-metre-deep South Downs valley which has been a tourist attraction since Victorian times — for ‘violating community standards on hate speech’. The touchy bots even slapped a 48-hour ban on a man who posted a photo of a bus bearing the beauty spot’s name as a destination with the caption ‘Heading up to the Dyke’. It’s nutty, but it sparked a serious thought: where have all the lesbians gone? Just the other week the lesbian Joanna Cherry was sacked as the SNP’s Westminster spokesperson for

Dear Mary: How can we set up our single friends in lockdown?

Q. My husband and I have two single friends who we believe should be introduced. In days gone by, we would have held a dinner or drinks party in order to do so. But with all the lockdowns, it is proving hard to get them in the same room. To make matters more difficult, they are both conscientious types and have moved to their respective family homes in the countryside to offer support to their parents. How should we introduce them? A Zoom call seems so unromantic.— Name and address withheld A. Much better to ambush the couple by inviting them to attend Zoom drinks to celebrate some confected achievement

Do divorces really increase after Christmas?

Now and then Were households allowed to mix at Christmas during the plague? Samuel Pepys’s diary entry for 25 December 1665: ‘To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding… which I have not seen many a day; and the young people so merry one with another, and strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition… thence to my Lord Bruncker’s by invitation and dined there…’ Festive fights Do divorces really increase thanks to Christmas? Divorce lawyers often say they’re especially busy after Christmas, as couples seek to untie the knot after a fractious time. But since the HM

I’ve started a dating site for lockdown sceptics

I started a dating site last Sunday. Not words I ever thought I’d write, but I’ve become a kind of den mother to a large group of people who believe the risk of coronavirus has been exaggerated, and it dawned on me that this could be a useful service for them. The idea is that if you’re a Covid realist you don’t want to go out with a hysteric who thinks the lockdown is being eased too quickly and frets about a ‘second wave’. You probably wouldn’t even be able to arrange a first date, let alone manage a kiss at the end of the evening. What you need is

How Covid has changed the dating game

Just before lockdown began, Matt Hancock and Dr Jenny Harries presented the nation’s daters with a stark dilemma. Non-cohabiting couples, they advised, should either move in together for the duration or stay physically apart. Couples who barely knew each other’s surnames were catapulted into levels of intimacy that would normally have evolved over years and the enforced lovebirds were soon living like old-style pensioners, spending every moment in each other’s company, arguing over hand sanitiser brands and giving one another dodgy haircuts. For the large pool of existing singletons, the picture was radically different. Gone was the usual flurry of social engagements, and even the possibility of meeting someone at

The antibody test that proved my wife wrong

Back in April, The Spectator ran a feature in which the partners of regular contributors wrote about what it was like being stuck in quarantine with the likes of us. What Caroline had to say was not very flattering: ‘Toby spent the first week of lockdown in bed convinced he had coronavirus. He didn’t. He is a complete hypochondriac at the best of times and this pandemic has sent his anxiety levels through the roof. He was so worried about catching it that the stress led to a bout of shingles, which is what actually laid him up.’ Ever since then I have been trying to prove to her that

Why is it that age limits never apply to men?

I’d never have thought I’d be good at doing nothing. Or rather walking the dogs, loafing in the sun, trying to match Paul Hollywood’s tête de brioche (third time of trying), doing jigsaws and reading hefty books. But I’m lovin’ it. The only thing that stresses me — indeed brings me out in lower-deck language most unbecoming to an octogenarian — is doing live shows or podcasts on Zoom or Skype while our broadband buffers, stutters or crashes. And some poor presenter is trying to fill the gap, desperate for me to make the technology work. Calls to Relate have tripled under lockdown I’m told because seeing too much of

Coromance is blossoming

It’s heartening to hear that while it’s curtains for the economy, our domestic lives are on the up. In Wuhan there was a spike in divorce rates, and in Japan, wives have been sending their husbands away to hostels. But here in Britain, there’s love in lockdown. Sales of engagement rings have risen significantly since we were all told to stay at home and couples have found creative ways to pop the question in their living rooms and local parks. For those who have been married for longer, working, eating and sleeping at home together 24/7 for weeks on end has been a strange novelty — an odd throwback to

Did anyone really believe what my wife wrote about me?

One of the nice things about having a column in The Spectator is that I get a chance to reply to all the smears and lies published about me. Which brings me to my wife’s remarks in last week’s magazine. The editor asked the partners of regular contributors to write a few words on what it’s like living with us during lockdown and Caroline was unbelievably rude. Among other things, she accused me of being a ‘complete hypochondriac’, said the pandemic had sent my anxiety levels ‘through the roof’ and ascribed my own life-and-death battle with the virus to a bout of shingles brought on by the stress. Needless to

Why do we write dedications in books?

When my siblings and I were clearing out my dad’s bookshelves (he died earlier this year), I made sure to keep any books in which I’d written a personal dedication to him. For some reason I baulked at the idea of them passing into the hands of strangers, or just being left to languish in the anonymous corners of charity bookshops. Worse than that would have been copies of my own novels, dedicated on the title page to ‘Dad’. (‘So even his own father didn’t bother keeping them…’) Why do we write dedications in books? I understand it as a romantic gesture: a way to show off your tremendous good

Bad romance | 7 February 2019

I interviewed a prominent 1970s women’s liberationist recently and ended up discussing the sexual culture of her political heyday. ‘Everyone was sleeping with everyone,’ she said. ‘You had to have a good reason not to sleep with someone.’ I felt a stab of envy, a sharpened version of what I feel browsing black-and-white snaps from back in the day. There is often a dishevelled sexiness. There are the gleefully knowing expressions from women newly unafraid of unwanted pregnancy, and the ‘why not?’ insouciance of slouching shaggy-haired men and their slender sheepskin-coated girlfriends leaning against doorposts. What a dreary distance we’ve travelled to get to the present dating landscape. How pleasure-free

Opposites attract

‘Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it.’ This is the most frustrating part of being alienated and young. You hope that there’s a better life in store for you but you can’t yet bank on it. Sally Rooney appeared two years ago with Conversations with Friends and has rightly been fêted as one of the most important writers of her generation. The question of generation matters because she’s writing about young people. Both novels feature protagonists who are undergraduates in Rooney’s own

They fill you with the faults they had

You attempt to write a review with a stiff dose of objectivity, but it’s hard not to start with a degree of fondness for an anthology put together by a magician who has performed in North Korea. Dale Salwak also has a sideline as a professor of literature at Citrus College in Los Angeles, and Writers and their Mothers is a collection of 22 pieces he has edited, by novelists, poets and literary critics, some biographical and analytical, some autobiographical. In his introduction, Salwak makes reference to an assertion by Georges Simenon that writers are ‘united in their hatred of their mothers’, an assertion, I’d suggest, that tells you much

Letters | 9 November 2017

Rules for romance Sir: Lara Prendergast describes a floundering generation desperate for reliable love but with no real idea how to find it (‘Sexual reformation’, 4 November). Our culture has forgotten the basic principles of forming successful relationships. My daughters apply three simple guidelines on choosing boyfriends wisely. One, does he fight for you? Men’s commitment is linked to willingness to sacrifice. He needs to show that he will put himself out for you. Two, is he marriageable? I’m not saying marry straight away. But he needs to have characteristics such as kindness and generosity. And three, can he make decisions? Commit to things and stick at them? Does he decide,

Dear Mary | 5 October 2017

Q. We have moved from London into a rural area where we are preparing for the first visit of a lifelong friend who has become a self-invented countryman. I know that he will insist on foraging for mushrooms, but none of my family wants to go on kidney dialysis machines as a result of being forced to eat them. None of us (including him) are mushroom experts. Much as we love our friend, he is something of a bully. What should we do Mary? — Name and address withheld A. Buy in a store cupboard supply of dried chanterelles, ceps etc, and rehydrate them prior to his visit. Feign enthusiasm

A choice of short stories

It can’t be easy to switch between editing others people’s fiction and writing your own: how do you suspend that intuitive critical impulse? Gordon Lish, who is best known as the editor of Raymond Carver’s short stories but has also written plenty of fiction in his own right, is familiar with this dilemma, and in White Plains (Little Island Press, £18.99) he has fun with it. These stories are replete with parenthetical um-ing and ah-ing over synonyms, punctuation and grammatical solecisms — a prolix testament to the agonies of prose composition: ‘Losing tone here, not retaining purchase on stance here, falling to pieces with the coward’s frolic along the phraseological