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Self Contained Emma John

Life without Prince Charming

It’s all very well letting children read books but they do set them up with some strange ideas, as Emma John points out when she describes the fairy tales we feed to impressionable minds. “We impart these stories of epic, circumstance-defying romance to children not just before they can read, but years before they’ll have any concept of sexual attraction.” Tinder will be a huge disappointment in comparison.

John’s memoir of scenes from her single life moves from her bookish and confident childhood, the older sister raised by parents who encourage her independence, via her twenties as a sports journalist, when she “mentally friend-zones” herself with every man she knows, to her forties in which, according to a brief author biography, she “remains single”. The language evolves, too, from the whimsical whirl of flatmates and cocktails and dusting herself down, to become more hard-edged. “If I wasn’t going to be the princess in my own story… more likely I was the cautionary part of the tale: the witch, perhaps, eaten up by bitterness at a world that didn’t appreciate her.”

This is not a tale of a rackety single life a la Bryony Gordon or Bridget Jones, but nor is it at all bitter. It’s a self-reflective examination of a state of being that is only ever defined as what it is not – a meditation on living a full, singular life in a world made for couples. The blurb promises an exploration of “what happily ever after looks like when your Prince Charming fails to show up”, but the book is far more about friendships and family and travelling the world than it is about romantic partners, or the lack of them. A man or two comes and goes, but they’re never as much missed or as colourfully drawn as the friends who move away or move on.

As John grows older, it’s friends and family who curb her wanderlust and create some urge to settle down: a friend’s cancer diagnosis; her mother’s illness; the birth of a beloved niece. She writes movingly about embarrassment, unnaturalness and the fear of loneliness, and about the slightly dizzying reality of moving up a notch in her own family when she doesn’t have children to take her place. “If anything, my new title [aunt] seemed to push me out of the frame with its knight’s move – one up, two across.”

A final chapter, written during lockdown, seems to find John at her best. Having lived alone, on her own terms, she realises, “I’ve probably been in training for this crisis my entire single life”. She’s also been practising examining her choices and place in the world in a way that some happy couples never have to, and has found them to be quite satisfactory, after all. “I haven’t lived a life defined by absence and I won’t spend the rest of it waiting on a future invisible”, she declares. Sorry, Prince Charming, but this princess woke up and wrote a new story.