Bad Romance reviewed in The Spectator

By Julie Burchill

How I love short stories! Long before the internet realised that we can’t sit still long enough to commit to the three-volume novels of yore, these little beauties were hitting the sweet spot repeatedly. I especially love female short story writers — Shena Mackay, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley — as they often read quite gossipy and friendly-like, as opposed to men who have to go out and shoot something to make some depressing point, or at least try to prove they’re the strong and silent type. Strong and silent writers should be true to themselves and simply shut up.

The young journalist Emily Hill is, on the strength of this gorgeous debut collection, the Saki of sex: she shares his grim good humour and glinting malice, grounded not in cheap scepticism but in a vast imaginative grasp of how fantastic life can be and how odd it is that we choose to make it so narrow. (The final story ‘Super-Lies’, documenting the operatic nightmare of a muse’s meltdown, even sounds like one of his titles.) ‘Julia’s Baby’, the opener, is as perfectly constructed a short story as I have ever read.

The femme fatalities in these stories are past-mistresses of painting on a smile and putting the best red-soled foot forward; Hill takes a scalpel straight to the screaming skull beneath the expensively smoothed skin, zooming in on the hallucinogenic hollows of heartbreak. She is both compassionate and merciless, full of scorn and sorrow. And droll, too:

The 21st century is full of second chances. The stakes aren’t very high for anything any more. Not when it comes to love. Think of all the romantic heroines of literature. There wouldn’t be a story, today. Anna Karenina would have divorced that dullard Karenin. Sued for custody. Rejoined society. Cathy and Heathcliff — a clear-cut case of antibiotics and social services. Romeo and Juliet witness protection.

Mugged by children, tormented by rabbits and sexually harassed by leopards, these girls could pick the sole sticky end of a lollipop out of a bran-tub of Tiffany’s trinkets. Unnatural love and the natural world conspire to bring down our plucky heroines, thorns and cads in tandem tearing at their clothing as they sashay blithely up the primrose path to emotional mayhem. They are sleepless, reckless, feckless and altogether adorable in their hacked-off humanity, displaying the strange dignity of total exposure: adventuresses who make one move too many on the wrong man, lose their footing and end up as smashed Meissen figurines.

There’s such harrowing honesty in these tales from abandoned boudoirs that they’d have the Sex and the City mob clutching their pearl necklaces in horror; and such flights of surrealist fancy — Hitler turns up as a peeping tom landlord; a single girl avoids party bores by boasting that her boyfriend is the late Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky — that it makes Girls look like the pedestrian plod it always was.

I’m keen on things that aren’t what they seem, and this book is a shining example; it’s pleasing to think of it selling to young women expecting a comforting dose of chick-lit and then finding themselves hurtling headfirst into a surrealist extravaganza. It seems unlikely that the dolly blonde of the jacket photo who writes a dating column seems all set to become the heir to Hector Hugh Munro, but as Emily Hill’s stories illustrate so beautifully, life is full of surprises.

Final dating column

To date, my love life has been a tiresome chronicle of bad romance. But it takes only an instant for things to go right. And, oh, how glorious it is when they do.

I call him the Special One, since he had a tattoo of Jose Mourinho on his shoulder blade. He had enormous brown eyes and was an ex-public schoolboy, something the Inner Circle dating app specialises in.

For our first date we went to an engagement party. He said he was a fan of irony. When I agreed to meet him, I expected nothing. But it was an auspicious moment, the one night nothing could go wrong. I was so vicariously happy for Marzena, the bride-to-be, for she is an angel. She lives on the floor below me. Our flats were built on top of the communal boiler and we met one summer while dangling half-naked out of our respective windows, which is how we are forced to live for the month of June. After decades and decades of even worse romance than mine, aged almost 50, she met a man who was worth the wait. He proposed last year. I’ll be their bridesmaid in June.

The Special One met me at a pub beforehand. I thought it would probably end there, but I felt he liked me because he made it damned obvious by buying me an absolutely enormous drink.

I’ve been told by all my friends who have stumbled upon their soulmate that when it’s meant to be, it simply is. But I wonder if any of them have an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism like I do.

I tried to hold off sleeping with him, knowing I’d lose my mind if it was in the slightest way any good. But I’d convinced myself it wouldn’t be. So I thought why not try, it’s been a long time… And then, when he took me to bed, the sex was so breathtaking my lungs might have quit and died. For I found myself, quite inexplicably, in heaven. And I wish that was how and where I’d remained. The tale at an end. And me waving at you from the start of a happy ever after.

But the magnificent sex was the end of it all. For, of course, he was too good for me. I had to get out before he went off me, at which point I’d hurtle back from happy-ish to utterly dejected again. I made an excuse and said goodbye. Then regretted it, fiercely.

Everyone agrees that on the third date you get laid, but there’s no law as to when your shag pal becomes your boyfriend. There should be some rule that says if you just hold yourself together until date 15, you get a free and automatic upgrade to relationship status.

It only takes a second for everything to go right. And roughly half that for it all to go wrong. Trust me, I’m an absolute expert at screwing everything up.