IIn 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 do not dated online. In her book, Pinkerton set out to investigate “which avenue—high-tech or low-tech—results in better sex and relationships, and whether it’s even the right question to ask.” Over a period of six years, she interviewed a range of subjects across Australia, from academics to active daters, to tackle something of an answer.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and Heartland attempts to cover it all: dating apps, alcohol addiction, hookup culture, the prevalence of “cold”, travel, pornography, non-monogamy , climate change, Covid-19. Many of these topics could constitute a book-length investigation on their own; an overview, such as that provided by Pinkerton, raises some interesting questions, but can really only scratch the surface in a way that, in this case, rarely leads to satisfactory 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 larger story. Her lyrical, evocative style shines most when she describes the landscape of the Northern Territory, where much of the book takes place, and vivid characters emerge through compelling dialogue. Sometimes, however, the flowery aspects of Pinkerton’s writing serve as smoke and mirrors, masking the fact that not much is actually being said.
Pinkerton approaches many of his interlocutors with an open and inquisitive mind. She immerses herself in the lives of her subjects, from women in their twenties chatting about their love lives around wine, to native sistagirls. But it still feels like an outsider who looks inside and is often overwhelmed. (I remember my mother, who often asks me if I’m still on “Tindler.”)
There is also a lingering air of conservatism in Heartland: although Pinkerton acknowledges the paradoxes and contradictions of the modern dating landscape, such as a simultaneous desire for commitment and freedom, it is difficult for him to understand that not everyone wants no traditional and heteronormative relationships. At one point, she writes about people who “open their inboxes and their legs, but close the door to expressions of honesty and vulnerability.” Intentional or not, the judgment inherent in this phrase weaves its way through much of the book; even though Pinkerton acknowledges gender double standards and reflects on her biases, she never really gets rid of them.
Pinkerton has clearly made an effort to be inclusive in her research by addressing people from different groups, but there is a distinct sense of otherness in the way she discusses race in particular. Microaggressions dot the text, such as when she sincerely asks a friend, “Tell me about being colorful in the dating world… does that make it harder or easier?” She also tends to specify race when irrelevant – for example, repeatedly referring to the fact that one of her porn-obsessed exes was Nigerian – and cites a number of people who use racial slurs or perpetuate racist stereotypes. Although these are their views and not his, the replication of these sentiments creates an uncomfortable reading experience, a reminder to the reader that whiteness is the default here.
Where Heartland succeeds is in communicating many of the anxieties facing young people today – for example, climate and environment – and how these have led to a widespread desire to connect with others who share the same priorities. In this way, it is a book that speaks directly to when and how interpersonal relationships reflect the changing 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.