Set between post-lockdown Melbourne and the digital landscape of dating apps, Rachel Matthews’ third novel, Never Look Desperate, takes the idea of mid-life romance to a place of gentle humour.
Over the course of the novel, three narrative threads are offered to the reader. In one, we meet Bernard, a man in mourning for his wife and father following their deaths during the pandemic. In another, we encounter Bernard’s mother, Goldie, whose relationship with her son is crumbling – and, in a third, we are introduced to Minh, a woman with ‘a messy shoulder-length bob with a thick fringe’, whom Bernard meets online.
Each plot line continues in interspersed, alternating chapters over the course of the novel. The characters on which Don’t Look Desperate pivot are largely absent: Silvia and Marvin, Bernard’s late wife and father. Their ghostly presences propel the narrative forward – the spaces their departures leave in the lives of their loved ones creating cracks in which the novel sets down roots.
While Bernard is a widower, Minh has had a series of short-term relationships. ‘Each one,’ Matthews tells us, ‘sparked a new haircut.’ Her relationship with her family is complicated; their arrival in Australia as refugees creating a complex web of trauma and memory. Minh meets Bernard on Bumble. Their conversation online begins slowly and awkwardly. Both are weighed down by their personal relationship histories; trying to connect with strangers over the internet in mid-life is no easy task. Intimacy in the digital age – framed by the isolations unearthed through the course of the Melbourne lockdowns – is a theme Matthews returns to repeatedly throughout Never Look Desperate.
Before his first date with Minh, Bernard stands in the bathroom at work and reflects on an article he has read recently about a US psychologist discussing the difficulties and benefits attached to socialising in a digital world. Expounding on the ‘importance of being social’ despite the rise in social phobias that ‘many people grappled with, after being inside for so long’, the article fills Bernard with complicated feelings.
He remembers, with shame, the pleasures of eating takeaway pizza alone, and of the blank loneliness of Zoom meetings. He glances at himself in the bathroom mirror, and feels the ridges in the skin of his face. It is a moment that passes quickly in the trajectory of the novel, but which feels as if it imparts the hard kernel of Matthews’ narrative intent.
For both Bernard and Minh, communication and connection are uneasy routes, filled with embarrassing moments and awkward messages – but their desire for anything that remotely approaches genuine love or affection is as equally strong as their feelings of quiet disgust at the sleazy dating scene in which they find themselves.
Never Look Desperate is an easy read, which feels as if it would work well as a mini-series or short film. In Matthews’ novel, as Bernard, Goldie and Minh journey toward deeper self-awareness, and forge stronger connections with one another, we gradually come to realise the profound impact of intergenerational trauma and social isolation on each of their lives.
Never Look Desperate, Rachel Matthews
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Publication Date: 1 September 2023