In my first flatshare, a five-bedroom flat in Toronto that had seen countless generations of students before us, we asked the landlord to give the walls a fresh coat of paint. "Something neutral," we said, which he took to mean a blinding shade of aqua. In our toothpaste-coloured flat, we decorated with paper snowflakes at Christmas, lived off bagels with guacamole and wept over boys who didn't know our names. Then I lived in a three-bedroom, no-living-room flat in Shepherd's Bush where we covered our walls with fairy lights and postcards from art galleries, tried our hand at hosting dinner parties and once accidentally let a fox in through the back door. Finally I moved to another three-bed in Forest Hill with a tiny kitchen and, miraculously, a beautiful, black-and-white tiled bathroom. There, we draped the ugly leather sofa in mismatched throws and too many cushions, got really into plants, drank endless bottles of wine and perfected Haim's "Want You Back" walking dance. To me, each of these makeshift homes felt magic.
Everything I Know About Love, the seven-part BBC show based on Dolly Alderton's memoir of the same name, is in many ways an ode to the female flatshare. We follow four friends – Maggie, Birdy, Nell and Amara – as they navigate their mid 20s in their first London flatshare. It's a painfully familiar story filled with one-night stands, first dates, embarrassing part-time jobs, girls' nights out, ghosted text messages and lots of wine. When Birdy, Maggie's childhood best friend, gets her first real boyfriend, the tight-knit girl group begins to fray at the seams.
For Maggie, equal parts wild child and sentimental writer, the promise of living with her three friends in their own flat is nothing short of magical – and cutting it short verges on criminal. "I don't think we should be going on first dates in the first month we move in together," she tells Nell after Birdy leaves for her date with Nathan. "It should be cordoned off for sacred housemate bonding time." Flickering across her eyes you can almost see the constant thought: This time and this place is special.
On the surface, the flat is a little sad, a little formulaic. There's a tiny TV, Ikea furniture, macrame wall hangings from Urban Outfitters, a soft, colourful glow that comes from draping a scarf over a lamp, bedrooms drowning in piles of laundry and a huge damp patch oozing through the wall. From an outsider's perspective it is merely a grimy "graduate houseshare", as the landlord's ex says at one point with a superior sneer.
But we are not outsiders. We know that a "graduate houseshare" doesn't begin to describe it. Through Maggie's eyes we see that it isn't just a place where you set up camp before your real life begins. It's the physical manifestation of that unique, transitional time in a modern woman's life when she takes the leap away from childhood but hasn't quite landed on solid adult ground. It is a time of freedom, possibility, hope. It is what Maggie calls a "grubby, golden phase of life".
And as Maggie knows all too well, their time here is finite. There is an ever-present sense of an ending just over the horizon – a feeling that the sun will set on this golden hour, leaving behind a colourless future filled with office work and boredom. As Maggie puts it: "Everyone I know has gotten so old and un-fun. And I’m like, 'Sorry I want to live before I die.'"
Everything I Know About Love is not the first show or film to set its action in a female flatshare. Past depictions of fictional flatshares include Girls, Frances Ha and Conversations with Friends, to name a few. But unlike these portrayals of life in a female flatshare, in Everything I Know About Love the flat becomes a character in and of itself. We linger in various rooms of the flat and watch its inhabitants simply living there. We look on as they make up group dances, smoke on the balcony, dart in and out of each other's rooms to borrow clothes and cuddle on the sofa, watching reality TV.
Watching Everything I Know About Love, I realised that there is something sacred and timeless in the very nature of the female flatshare.
There was, after all, a time not so long ago when the female flatshare didn't exist. A woman moved from her parents' home straight into the home of her husband, or she didn't move at all. Then, in the 20th century, a few bold, creative, bohemian young women began to band together to make homes of their own. In the book Square Haunting, Francesca Wade explores five female writers who lived in the same square in Bloomsbury between the world wars. "Each dedicated herself to establishing a way of life that would let her fulfil her potential, to finding relationships that would support her work and a domestic set-up that would enable it," writes Wade. In many ways it was the beginning of the tradition of the female flatshare and those principles remain to this day. As Alderton herself puts it: "That sense of women coming together, making a home together, being enmeshed in each other's domestic lives, being naughty, being mistreated and being mischievous together."
As Everything I Know About Love suggests, the female flatshare is not just a place for making mistakes, letting loose and having fun – it's also a place for discovering who you really want to be after you move on.
A few years ago I moved out of my flatshare with the pretty bathroom and the throw-covered sofa and into a new flat, this time with a boy. And just like that, my brief, beautiful time of living with women came to a sobering end. I am eternally grateful for my own "grubby, golden phase". Without it, I wouldn't be who I am today.
Everything I Know About Love is on BBC One and iPlayer from 7th June