Does the following sound familiar to you? Boy meets girl. Boy decides he fancies girl and gets girl’s details off a mutual friend. Boy waits 24 hours before emailing girl. Girl immediately forwards email to her best friend. Girl waits another four hours to send a breezy reply that she actually drafted three times to boy. Boy receives reply and forwards to his best friend. Boy’s best friend decides girl is keen. Boy suggests meeting for drinks. Girl texts friend to tell her date is on (winky face). Friend analyses boy’s choice of location and they both stalk his Facebook page.
Dating someone in the 21st century can be as much about what happens between the dates as on the dates themselves. Those vulnerable hours spent waiting for a reply to a text message, the deliberation over exactly how many kisses looks keen-but-not-too-keen, all the tiny but somehow crucially important morsels being shared and dissected in minute detail with a long-suffering best friend.
American writers Neel Shah and Skye Chatham had a light-bulb moment when they realised that it’s these exchanges, the threads of emails and texts we all have buried away in our inboxes and phones, that perfectly sum up the anxiety-inducing dance of modern dating. The novel they went on to write, Read Bottom Up (so called because when you forward on threads of messages to a friend for analysis, you tell them to ‘read [from the] bottom up’), is made up entirely of texts and emails sent between a pair of fictional single New York twenty-somethings called Madeline and Elliot, framed by strings of messages discussing their unfolding relationship with their best friends David and Emily. The novel begins the morning after Madeline (a book PR) and Elliot (a chef) meet in the very New York setting of a restaurant opening party. If you’ve ever been single then what follows will perfectly capture all your insecurities about dating.
It has been a while since a book about relationships has felt completely fresh, but Read Bottom Up is one of those ‘Oh my god, you have to read this’ numbers you’ll whip through in a day and pass around your circle of friends in an evangelical fashion until it’s completely dog-eared. The book has already been building a massive grass-roots buzz across the pond in New York in the same way He’s Just Not That Into You did before it. Time magazine has called it ‘the most relevant dating book in recent years’, Girls star Allison Williams is a fan and you feel it’s only a matter of time before someone snaps up the film rights. The genius of the book lies not just in its fresh email and text format, but in the way the pair wrote it: Neel (an LA-based screenwriter) and Skye (a writer who lives in New York) mapped out the dating timeline of their hero and heroine, but otherwise wrote the book blind, without seeing the exchanges between the friends on either side. ‘We wanted to demonstrate – or, really, re-enact – how these five- to nine-month relationships spark, fly and crash in your 20s,’ Skye says, so while the pair knew how things would end between Madeline and Elliot, ‘we didn’t know exactly how we’d get there’.
The book often reads like a fable on technology and romance, with some very 21st-century problems you’ll recognise – like when David asks Elliot if Madeline has been in touch after date two: ‘I texted her after the show, got the “…” bubble from her, but then it went away and she didn’t write anything, which should basically be illegal,’ Elliot writes; and the beginning of an email from Elliot to David, which states, ‘I don’t check my voicemails because I am a human in the 21st century.’ Social media also threatens to derail the relationship (of course) when Madeline spots Elliot’s hot, young ex-girlfriend Ellie at a wedding with him on Instagram – something Elliot had (of course) failed to mention. And would a book about finding love in the 21st century be complete without a lengthy Facebook stalk? ‘I can’t see anything but his profile pictures,’ Madeline emails Emily, ‘and they’re all of him in glasses/dark alleys behind bars/Coachella (which is captioned “Brochella” btw. Oy).’
There’s also the hilarious contrast between the breezy messages of the lovers and not-so-breezy exchanges between the friends. ‘I am a psycho,’ Madeline writes, ‘because I do that thing where whatever greeting/salutation I’m presented with, that’s what I reply with. So he left off our names and thus I will too.’ It’s hard to read the book and not find a bit of yourself in Madeline and Elliot. You will cringe in recognition at the way the pair present sharper, wittier versions of themselves on text and email, sending those ‘so a funny thing happened today’ stories, which are really just an excuse to get in touch, or quirky anecdotes that each party hopes will make them seem more attractive or cool. ‘It’s like you’re projecting this kind of curated version of yourself,’ says Neel, who is currently single himself, ‘which often doesn’t match the real version, and that disparity is not always great.’
So does the book prove that all the different ways we communicate with each other now just increase the chance of miscommunication? Our parents’ generation would ask someone on a date and – bar the odd phone call – go into total contact blackout until they met up. ‘I think technology is basically ruining our dating lives,’ says Neel. ‘It makes it really easy to be lazy, and to date multiple people at the same time to a degree that’s probably not good, and to take you out of being “present” in person.’ Skye, who is in a ‘happy, monogamous’ relationship, doesn’t believe technology necessarily spells out doom for modern love, but she thinks it can be unhelpful in the early stages. ‘It slows down the process of committing because instead of getting to know someone on one platform [the platform of human contact], you have to get accustomed to texting styles and Instagram posting frequency and all of it,’ she says. ‘This is why my next boyfriend is going to live in a cabin in the woods with no Wi-Fi. I’ve decided.’
Though the characters in Read Bottom Up are fictional, its 360 view of a single relationship makes it feel like a modern dating manual, a compact love child of Bridget Jones’s Diary and He’s Just Not That Into You. As (500) Days Of Summer screenwriter Michael H Weber put it in his review, ‘You will smile and laugh at the romantic follies of Read Bottom Up – until you realise you are not reading this book, it is reading you – at which point you will speed-dial your therapist.’ There is, for example, a moment in the book that’s straight out of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, when Madeline arrives at the restaurant for date two (having got a blow-dry) to find Elliot sitting with a load of his friends. They end up eating with them rather than going to a separate table. He doesn’t think this is a big deal. She does, giving a blow-by-blow account of how awful the night was to her friend the next day. Skye and Neel didn’t read each other’s messages between the friends until they’d finished the book and were bemused by what they found. ‘That was my favourite part of the process,’ Skye says, ‘because it proved that we really had cause to write this novel. The miscommunications are there, the threat is real. I would have Madeline send what I thought was a very charming and reasonable e-mail, explaining why Elliot had upset her, and only in reading the final manuscript did I discover that David had deemed her “passive aggressive”.’
Though the men in the book might not be quite as analytical as the ladies, they discuss the relationship in more depth than you might imagine. Does Neel think this is one positive outcome of communicating by text and email – that men can open up more about their feelings? ‘Oh totally,’ he replies, ‘I think things like texting and Gchat just make sharing and oversharing so easy that it has totally opened the floodgates for talking about “feelings” in a way we – at least dudes – didn’t before. Also, if things ever get too real, you can always just undercut everything with a “LOL” or an emoji of a monkey covering his eyes or whatever.’
On the US cover of Read Bottom Up is a quote from Allison Williams – whose Girls character, Marnie, you can picture moving in the same hip New York circles as Madeline and Elliot – praising Neel and Skye’s book as the last word in modern dating. But there is one element to it that struck me as quite old-fashioned. Madeline and Elliot meet by chance at a party, rather than online. Did Neel and Skye ever think of making Madeline and Elliot meet on Tinder or Happn? ‘You know, we never actually did, though obviously that’s how so many people meet these days,’ says Neel. ‘If there was ever a sequel, I’m sure that’s how they’d meet.’ We’ll be first in the queue when that one hits shelves.
Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham is out now (£10.99, Dey Street Books)