This is A Love Story: Fleabag, the Fourth Wall, and Loving in the Void


Note: There are absolutely spoilers in here so proceed with caution!

In the first aside to camera of Fleabag’s second series, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show’s creator, wipes her bloody nose before a mirror in a restaurant bathroom. Lowering the towel, she turns away from her reflection and says to the camera, “This is a love story.”

It’s a sensational opening to a season that has gone on to win near-universal acclaim. The show first premiered in 2016 and its last episode (ever, according to its creator) aired this past Monday, lauded by audiences and critics alike as an exemplary piece of television, a pioneer in what has been dubbed by some as a new genre of “comic noir”.

As anyone familiar with my Twitter will know, I am obsessed with Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing is a rare gift: tightly-controlled and yet exhilarating to witness, that makes you laugh in the same moment as it punches you in the gut, and I’ve spent a lot of time considering what makes it stand out so vividly from other programmes of its type.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, and not to be too millennial about it, I strongly suspect it’s the show’s contemplation of the void.

Fleabag is an essentially isolated character, and here’s the thing: we’ve seen a lot of them. In movies, music, books, tv, we are surrounded by lonesome women.

You know what I’m going to say next. Often, this lonesomeness is a marker for the absence of a romantic partner. Relationships equal fulfilment, and aloneness is a problem to be fixed with romantic love. If it cannot be fixed this way, this is surely a tragedy. Existential crisis, doubt, or emptiness, away from the trials of romantic relationships, are the provinces of men, who are free to contemplate the universe from a stance of purity and neutrality, driving to the heart of what it “really” means to be human.

This is bollocks, obviously. The canon of “men contemplating their isolation” is as gendered as any other. Which is why it makes a difference to see women take on the subject, to make it their own and turn on its head the notion that the love that will “complete” them will ultimately come from a man—or, in fact, ever come at all.

Fleabag refutes the notion of absolution through romantic love even as it promises us a love story, and that’s what makes it so brilliant.

The show follows a desperately lonely character who we never see alone. Whenever we encounter her, we, the audience, are her silent companions—to a greater degree than in most television series, given the show’s signature breaking of the fourth wall.

 “The idea that she’s honest to you—that’s what felt so dangerous,” said Waller-Bridge on Variety’s “Stagecraft” podcast, speaking about the decision to have Fleabag speak directly to the camera.

The intimacy that Fleabag creates in her asides to the audience throughout the series is double-edged: we have a privileged view of the action of Fleabag’s life, and yet are also suspended from that action. There are things Fleabag tells us that she tells no one else; there are ways in which she keeps herself deliberately unknowable.

We come into Fleabag’s life at her own invitation, three years after the death of her mum and when she is grieving the recent death of her best friend Boo. We are banished again when she no longer wants us there; when we find out about the betrayal that indirectly led to Boo’s death, and we are only welcomed back a full year later.

In the intervening months, Fleabag seems to have worked on herself: her café is a success, she is less impulsive with her family (though she still does punch her brother-in-law in the face, and justifiably so). In a therapy session, Fleabag (half) jokes that “for most of my adult life I’ve used sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart,” turning to the camera and saying smugly, “I’m good at this!”

We, the audience, exist in this void, or are perhaps a proxy for it: the missing link between intimacy and fulfilment, between sex and love, between vulnerability and safety.

We see its beginnings in the flashback to Fleabag’s mother’s funeral, when Fleabag asks Boo what she should do with all the love that she still has for her mother, with the lifetime of feeling that now has no place to go.

“I’ll take it,” says Boo, and so that love finds its second home, or at least seems to. Fleabag loves Boo, but the void is still there, and when she uses sex to deflect from it this time, Boo disappears too, and the crack in Fleabag’s life widens into a crevasse.

This is when we meet her in season one. At arm’s length, across a divide. We witness the cracks in her relationships as she reveals them to us one by one, and all the time we ourselves are invisible (for the most part), a void into which she speaks her thoughts, unseen by anyone until the Hot Priest, played by Andrew Scott, comes on the scene in season two.

Aside from being, as his makeshift moniker suggests, an absolute 10, the Hot Priest relates to Fleabag in a way that nobody else in her life does. In a hair-raising scene akin to a face appearing at your window just as you are stripping off, he breaks the fourth wall—the only other character aside from Fleabag to do so—glimpsing the audience without quite knowing who or what we are.

And what are we? There’s no certain answer, obviously. And I’m not even saying for sure that I think that we “are” Boo, or Fleabag’s mother, or Fleabag herself, or even the screaming void inside her empty heart.

But I do like to think that the audience’s role in Fleabag is to stand in for some of these things. To be both a void and a representative for the love that has been left behind by Boo and by Fleabag’s mother: an intimate witness that cannot speak or offer comfort, for whom she feels a need, but whom she must also leave behind.

The Hot Priest sees us, but we know the deal from the beginning. He’s a priest, for God’s sake. He cannot be the new home for her lost love; he is a source of new love and new pain, albeit one whose acceptance grows her, and through which she proves to herself her commitment to healing.

There are minimal asides in the final episode, but there are numerous moments of intimacy between Fleabag and the other loves of her life, both hilarious and heartbreaking. A brilliantly funny speech about rom-com airport scenes by Claire is capped with the revelation that the only person she would run through an airport for is her sister. In a moment that brought me to my knees, after insisting that he was in the attic to save a mouse from suffocating, her father tells her that “I think you know how to love better than any of us, that’s why you find it all so painful.”

And crucially, when Fleabag finally tells the Priest she loves him, she does not ask him to say it back. She asks for him to leave it “out there on its own” for a while, in the empty space that there must exist between them.

In the end, as this season shows us, there’s no rehoming the love we lose. But it’s not quite a tragedy, and it doesn’t quite rule out our absolution, either. When Fleabag stands up from her perch at the bus stop in the show’s closing moments, she is alone again, and this time she asks us not to follow her. She is shouldering her heartbreak and moving on, a different person to the one we left at the end of season one—though still carrying the same stolen statue.

This was not a story about how romantic love can save you from yourself. It was a story about loving in the wake of loss, about the many loves it takes to build a life, about how love is like hope, how loss is inevitable, and how the best that we can do sometimes is to speak into the void.

This was great tv. And above all, it was a love story.

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbour’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-coloured blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

— Ada Limón, “Instructions On Not Giving Up”


Sisterhood Feels Good: Why I’m Into the Current Obsession With Female Friendship

Books, Music

You know your best friend—the idea of her was probably introduced to you in primary school. She’s the girl you sit next to on the bus on school trips and whose nails you paint at sleepovers. She’s the girl who you’re positive will be the maid of honour at your wedding (which you’re also positive will be to Michael Owen the football player, who is apparently very good at sports and who you think is just dreamy). She’s someone you think you will love forever.

As you grow older you begin to realise that this rarely works out. You might have a string of best friends, no best friend at all, or, quite tragically (as was my case) become a serial second-best friend for a number of years—always the bridesmaid, never the maid of honour, so to speak.

But still, the idea of the best friend, whether singular or plural, never quite goes away. It’s pored over in literature and film; even music, that medium so famously preoccupied with romantic love, has a corner reserved for it.

Take 2015’s (misleadingly-titled) “Boy Problems” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Ostensibly a song about a woman breaking up with her boyfriend, the breakup the song laments isn’t with the boy of the title, but the singer’s best friend.

What’s worse, losing a lover or losing your best friend?” Jepsen asks. “What’s worse is when you discover you’re not good for each other/ She’s been giving, you’ve been taking, taking, taking.

Of course, romantic and platonic love songs, stories, and movies all attest to the same thing: that loving another person is hard. It’s dramatic, it’s difficult, and the person you think will be by your side on your wedding day may turn out not to be the right one for you. So it goes.

The difference is that friendship has rarely been afforded the space for exploration that romantic love has, especially between women.

Virginia Woolf lamented this in A Room Of One’s Own in 1929, writing that relationships between women were invariably painted too simplistically for her liking—as rivalries, matters of competition or sexual jealousy.

“So much has been left out, unattempted,” she wrote. “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men.”

Up until a few years ago, I would have said that this was still the case. However, something has happened over the last few years—beginning (by my estimations) around the time that “Boy Problems” was released.

Virginia Woolf at her desk, presumably dreaming of a fictional future populated entirely by close-knit gal pals

Let’s cut back to 2015. The “Boy Problems” video, directed by photographer Petra Collins, sees Jepsen & co dancing in a 1980s-styled, candy-coloured dreamworld pulled straight from the pages of a lockable diary.

Collins’s close friend Tavi Gevinson features, as well as others of their friends; for instance, best friends and plus-size Instagram influencers Minahil Mahmood and Dounia Tazi.

For those familiar with these women’s platforms at the time, the video offered a knowing wink: what you were seeing was not just a stylised video of women having fun (although of course it was that too), but real friends hanging out having a good time. It was girly, and poppy, and cool in the way you imagine sleepovers will be before you’ve ever been to one.

It was also very much of its moment. 2015 was the year that Julianne Moore used her acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards to shout out the other women in her category and regret her lack of opportunities to work with them. It was also the golden period post-1989 and pre-Kimye fiasco when Taylor Swift and her #girlsquad were at the height of their powers.

Fast-forward a few years and a lot has changed. Swift has been felled and risen again with a new image; Obama has been replaced by Trump; the UK’s long-standing relationship with the EU has been replaced by total chaos.

But, as a culture, we’re still riding high on this girl power message.

Obviously, being an avid reader and aspiring writer, I see this the most clearly in books.

Perhaps the most famous example, at least in the UK, is Dolly Alderton’s memoir, Everything I Know About Love, published in 2018. Although initially planned to be a saga of dating in her twenties, Alderton’s book quickly becomes an ode to her long-standing relationships with the women in her life, particularly her childhood best friend Farly.

To say the book has done well would be an understatement. Empirically-speaking, it was a Sunday Times top 10 bestseller. Anecdotally speaking, it feels like every twenty-something woman I know has read it, and the feeling around it is almost evangelical. At my last count, at least five different people have read my copy, and I even suggested it for my uni girl friends’ book club late last year. We joked repeatedly throughout the weekend that our most-used phrase was “It’s just like Dolly says in the book…” and all wrote messages in the front of one copy to post to our friend who couldn’t make it—as though it were one long, ventriloquised love letter.

Evidently, there’s something about Everything I Know About Love that just resonates with women my age—perhaps simply that it reflects our changing reality in a way we haven’t seen before.

The fact is, we’re settling down later than we used to. Instead of husbands being our main company throughout our twenties (a ghastly prospect if ever there was one), we’re now building meaningful relationships with each other. The tenderness with which Alderton relays this experience is infectious, and it’s no wonder that the book has been such a hit: we’re hungry for these stories because we haven’t seen many of them before.

We’re certainly getting more of them now. Daisy Buchanan, who I first came across through her hilarious roundups of Made in Chelsea episodes, has penned a memoir called The Sisterhood: A Love Letter to the Women Who Have Shaped Me, to name just one similar title.

But it’s not just memoirs—and it’s not just tender evocations of female camaraderie, either. Some of my favourite novels that I’ve read in the last few years have dealt with the difficulty of maintaining close friendships with women, partly because of the fact that the cultural narratives we grow up within pit us against one another.

In fact, this sense of embattlement within female friendships is a common theme in many of these stories.

Take Lila and Lenu in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: the friction between the two women from an early age is charged with jealousies both petty and serious, over not just love and material wealth but intelligence and talent, which of them has more, and which of them has the opportunity to explore it.

Lila and Lenu in HBO’s recent adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend – © Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

Many of these stories approach female friendships as mirrors that we hold up to ourselves, standards we set and, ultimately, never quite meet. Take Paulina and Fran, in which the author Rachel B. Glaser paints title characters whose self-obsession translates into an obsession with each other: with the ways in which they mirror each other, or wish they did.

These kinds of fictional relationships, as one might expect, are frequently toxic: the competitive spirit between the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time and her childhood friend Tracey causes the latter to vindictively participate in the breakdown of her career. Reva’s desperation in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation prompts disgust from the unnamed narrator, but it is her longing for acceptance that acts as a foil to the narrator’s misanthropy throughout the novel, and it is Reva’s image that we are left with at its close.

Although these kinds of stories may seem to play into exactly what Woolf was lamenting almost a century ago—that women in fiction are too frequently locked in competition with each other, at the expense of any other relationship—I think they actually demonstrate how enriched our interpretations of women’s friendships have become.

Sisterhood, female friendship, girl power—it may, at times, or perhaps all the time, be a fight. But these stories show that, just like great romantic love, these relationships can be the fight of our lives, and their success across art forms is testament to the fact that we—or at least the women that I know—are ready for a ringside seat.

No other love is like the love of a teenage girl, all passion and fire and endless devotion—at least for a week.

Emma Straub, “My Rayannes

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.

The Spice Girls, “Wannabe”

Notes from the Commuter Train: Reading in Review

Books, Reviews

At the end of last year, I spent three months commuting into London every day for work. From leaving home to arriving at the office in Shepherd’s Bush, the commute took about one hour and forty minutes, the majority of which were spent on some form of train.

I like travelling by train. There’s a romance to it that feels peculiarly British. In a strictly historical sense, the rail network is the skeletal infrastructure of British industrial growth over the last 150 years; it is both historically significant and persistently relevant in a way that it’s not in, say, America, land of the road trip or the domestic flight. And in a purely cultural sense, the blitz spirit of being trapped in a metal tube surrounded by other passengers all tutting in polite consternation whenever there’s a delay is the closest I get to chest-beating patriotism.

I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, oh dear God, the money) on trains over the years, zipping up and down regularly between York and Oxford during my undergrad degree. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much daily time on them: three hours, give or take, every single day. I needed to find something not only to pass the time but to activate it, to not let it drain away into hours I’d never get back or get anything real out of. And as someone who’s always loved reading, my route was clear: I read my way through it.

I read 21 books in those three months, some of them staggering, some of them not so much. Below are some brief reviews and recommendations from the reading train.

Best non-fiction book: The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

I’m not ordinarily a huge non-fiction reader, but this book totally changed my outlook. Part-memoir, part-art history, part-critique, Laing explores a city and a set of artists through a lens that would never have occurred to me but which seemed indispensable once she’d  put it in front of me. It’s the kind of book that leads you on a meandering path around the same central subject: loneliness, the feeling of profound isolation, and how artists including Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, and a new favourite of mine, David Wojnarowicz (pronounced “Wonna-row-vitch”), transmuted those feelings into art. I don’t have a picture of my own copy, as I’d already lent it to a friend to read, but this is undoubtedly one of my reading highlights of the year.

Read this if you’re remotely interested in New York, modern art, or have ever felt lonely. Yes, I’m aware that last one includes everyone and I’m not sorry. Avoid it if you don’t like being shaken to your very bones.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.

Best poetry book: Off-White by Annie Bryan

Now, full disclosure: the author of this particular work is very dear to me and I did Snapchat her frantically whenever I encountered a line in this book that moved me to my core. BUT I also firmly believe that there is enough beautiful writing in this book that I would have been frantically Snapchatting somebody about them – it was just a peculiar privilege that that person could be the author.

This book will teach you about love and finding your way back to yourself. It is about pain, and family, and getting better. It harbours such enormous feeling that from the first page to the last the time you spend in Annie’s thoughts is a lesson in empathy and being a little kinder to yourself and to those around you. It will open your eyes.

Read this book if you want to hear from a woman speaking frankly and beautifully about coming out, eating disorder recovery, and so many more difficult topics it is so hard to bring into the light. Avoid it if you’re not into poetry or beautiful things.

But she says “few things make me happier than a blue sky with white clouds”
And she looks at me like i’m one of them.

And it all felt like a river that was heading towards the sea
Though we did not know which one

And so i go on loving you
Like water.

Best novels: a top 3 list (in no particular order)

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I first came across Jennifer Egan in my American literature module at York, when we read her 2001 novel Look at Me. I loved Look at Me, and had heard interesting things about Goon Squad before reading it. Nothing could have prepared me for this though – it’s a feat of ingenuity that I’d never anticipated. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, each of them tangentially related to one another. In each one you are sucked completely into that character’s world and their problems, and although you never see their story in its entirety from their perspective, there’s a particular thrill in glimpsing them through other characters’ eyes. There’s also a chapter that’s entirely told through PowerPoint, which is the most bizarre thing that I never expected to move me in the way it did.

Read this book if you are a fan of unorthodox storytelling and want to try something compelling and different. Avoid this book if you think that jumping between so many different characters would shake off your interest after a while.

2. Autumn and Artful by Ali Smith

I make no secret of how much I adore Ali Smith. How to be both, as I frequently tell anyone who will listen and recently told the author herself at a book event at Foyles, changed my life and what I thought was possible from reading and writing. Autumn and Artful are both comparably brilliant.

The former is the first book in Smith’s ongoing seasonal cycle, and has been widely billed as the first post-Brexit novel. It examines activism and political change and art, with a shining handful of central characters that you care deeply about by the time the book ends. It makes history beautiful as it’s happening, which is unbelievably rare.

Artful is a literary- and art-historical ghost story about grief and beauty, and was unusual and unexpected in all the most important ways. It’s a tour of the mourning period and of great art and embraces intertextuality arguably more than any of Smith’s other works. Smith does this nimbly and manages never to seem pretentious or unfocused. The book also prompted me to rewatch the 1960s Oliver! which was delightful.

Read these books if you love or are curious about Ali Smith – she will not disappoint. Avoid these books if you’re not a fan of postmodern style, and prefer a more traditional narrative voice.

To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.

— Ali Smith, Artful

3. The Master by Colm Toíbín

This book is one of those quiet gems that you don’t realise has become so meaningful to you until you’ve finished reading it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought about it since putting it down. The novel is a fictional retelling of the life of Henry James, the “master” of American fiction, but you don’t need to know anything about James or to have read him to enjoy it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by James, and I actually think it helped: I encountered him for the first time through Toíbín’s understated and sensitive prose, and when it was over I would have rushed out to read him immediately had I not worried about disturbing the magic this book had created.

Read this book if you love fictional interpretations of real stories and you love learning to care deeply about fictional characters. Avoid this book if you’re not much into stories about writers or literary history, and want something a bit more fast-paced.

Special mentions

The book I wish more people knew about: The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong

Immediately after reading this book I Googled it, hoping to find some kind of discussion of the narrative perspective Armstrong uses here. Alas, I found nothing. Somebody please read it so that I can talk your ear off about it.

The book that disappointed me the most: Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

This is less the fault of Woolf than it is of my own astronomically high expectations: I’d been looking forward to finally reading this for years and expected the richly-textured prose I remembered from Mrs. Dalloway or her letters. But Orlando is not quite that book. One to revisit in future with a more open mind, perhaps.

The book that made me cry on the Tube: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A beautiful, vast storytelling voyage that nearly made me sob on the Circle line. You cover so much ground and learn so much about Chinese history and family and music in this book, it’s a little overwhelming but well worth all the feels.

If you’ve read any of the books I’ve mentioned here, either in these highlights or in the full list below, let me know your thoughts!

The full list (in order of reading)

  1. Sagan: Paris 1954 by Anne Berest
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  3. The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong 
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  5. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
  6. Lust by Roald Dahl
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith
  8. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  9. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  10. Artful by Ali Smith
  11. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
  12. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
  13. Off-White by Annie Bryan
  14. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  15. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  16. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
  17. The Master by Colm Toíbín
  18. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy by Neil Astley
  19. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  20. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  21. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

Further reading (as if you needed it): Train Songs, an anthology of poems about trains and stations, edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

— Ezra Pound, “In A Station of the Metro”