In the opening pages of Heartland, author Jennifer Pinkerton admits to feeling a little superior because she’s never used online dating. As a Gen Xer, she’s a few years older than me, and I’ve never not dated online. In her book, Pinkerton has set out to investigate “which avenue – high-tech or low-tech – results in better sex and relationships, and whether that’s even the right question to ask”. Over a six-year period, she interviewed a range of subjects across Australia, from academics to active daters, to approach something of an answer.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and Heartland attempts to tackle it all: dating apps, alcohol reliance, hookup culture, the prevalence of “chill”, travel, porn, kink, non-monogamy, climate change, Covid-19. Many of these topics could make for a book-length investigation on their own; an overview, such as Pinkerton provides, raises interesting questions, but can only really skim the surface in a way that, in this case, rarely results in satisfying answers.
Formally, Heartland bears similarities to Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s My Body Keeps Your Secrets and Monica Tan’s Stranger Country – part travelogue, part anthropological study, part memoir. Pinkerton weaves her personal narrative through a tapestry of other voices to tell a much broader story. Her lyrical and evocative style shines brightest when she is describing the landscape of the Northern Territory, where much of the book is set, and vivid characters emerge through compelling dialogue. At times, though, the florid aspects of Pinkerton’s writing serve as smoke and mirrors, obscuring the fact that, actually, not much is being said.
Pinkerton approaches many of her interviewees with an open, curious mind. She immerses herself in her subjects’ lives, from twentysomething women gossiping about their love lives over wine, to Indigenous sistagirls. But there’s a sense, always, that she’s an outsider looking in, and one who is often out of her depth. (I’m reminded of my mother, who asks me often if I’m still on “Tindler”.)
There’s also a nagging air of conservatism throughout Heartland: though Pinkerton recognises the paradoxes and contradictions of the modern dating landscape, such as a concurrent desire for commitment and freedom, it seems difficult for her to grasp that not all people want traditional, heteronormative relationships. At one point she writes of people who “fling open their inboxes and their legs, yet close the door on expressions of honesty and vulnerability”. Intentional or not, the judgment inherent in that sentence makes its way into much of the book; even though Pinkerton acknowledges gendered double standards and reflects on her biases, she never quite shakes them off.
Pinkerton has made a clear effort to be inclusive in her research by speaking to people from a range of different groups, but there’s a distinct feeling of otherness in the way she discusses race in particular. Microaggressions pepper the text, such as when she earnestly asks a friend: “Tell me about being coloured in the dating world … does it make things harder or easier?” She also has a tendency to specify race when it is not relevant – for instance, repeatedly referring to the fact that a porn-obsessed ex of hers was Nigerian – and quotes a number of people who use racial slurs or perpetuate racist stereotypes. While these are their views and not hers, the replication of these sentiments makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, a reminder to the reader that whiteness is the default here.
Where Heartland does succeed is in communicating many of the anxieties faced by young people today – for instance, climate and environment – and how these have led to a prevalent desire to connect with others who share the same priorities. In this way, this is a book that speaks directly to the moment, and the ways in which interpersonal relationships reflect the shifting values and beliefs of the modern world. Love is like that – an evolving, amorphous entity, showing who we are and who we want to be, both individually and together.