The problem with taking your first dip into an acclaimed author’s back catalogue is that you may fish out that one dud that will stop you seeking out the rest of their oeuvre even if it has been lorded by broadsheet bigwigs and fellow writers.
Maggie O’Farrell has had much critical praise heaped on her since the publication of her debut After You’d Gone in 2000 for her novels that charter choppy relationships with a sinister undercurrent. She is that rarest of publishing beasts, a critically acclaimed author who shifts units. A star of a thousand bookclubs and broadsheet culture sections, O’Farrell’s work is widely thought of as accessible literary fiction; her books are page turners and brain churners.
Out of curiosity more than real longing, I have been wanting to read O’Farrell for a while, seduced by the real passion for her work that eluded from reviews. But where to start? With her latest, Instructions For A Heatwave that’s winning her more fans both in literary circles and on Amazon? Or her Costa novel award winning The Hand That First Held Mine?
Stumbling across her 2005 novel The Distance Between Us in a second hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye intervened in my indecisiveness. And well… it’s far from a dud, but it didn’t give me that rush of excitement you get from a novel that’s really great, that you fall in love with. O’Farrell’s cracking dialogue and pretty prose couldn’t compensate for the schisms in the storyline and the paper thin central characters and a plot that gets lost somewhere between Scotland and Hong Kong.
For the first two-thirds The Distance Between Us weaves an engaging, mysterious web of intrigue that crosses two continents and stretches from the top to the bottom – and even veers off to the east – of the UK.
But that web unravels in the home straight when the novel descends into a Richard Curtis-style frantic, and hugely implausible, love-hunt when the characters, and with it the plot, melt into a puddle of rom-com cliches.
The novel starts in London where Stella Gilmore is crossing the river on the way to work when the sight of a man walking towards her sparks a memory so terrifying that Stella immediately flees her job in TV production and, without telling her family (and I would say friends, but she doesn’t seem to have any), runs away to a remote part of Scotland. The only person who holds the key to her whereabouts is her chaotic sister Nina.
The relationship between the Scottish-Italian (the theme of being an outsider is a strong one throughout The Distance Between Us) sisters is an interesting one, and ripe for more attention. They share an uncommonly sisterly, almost twin-like bond, which, we learn, was fused in childhood after Nina suffered a near fatal brain virus that leaves her vulnerable, fragile and so behind in her studies that she must drop back to the same year as the younger Stella. Barely in double figures herself, Stella was forced to become her sister’s bodyguard, a role she took so seriously that the reverberations are still being felt today.
But, back to the beginning. While Stella is freaking out about a red-headed man lumbering towards her through a Thames-mist, Jake Kildoune is in Hong Kong fighting for survival in a horrific crowd crush while out celebrating Chinese New Year. He escapes physically unscathed, but Mel, his girlfriend of a few months is lying in hospital and not expected to last the night. Her only wish before she dies is to marry the man she barely knows. Because, dying single is, like, totally every woman’s worst nightmare, right? Jake duly puts a ring on it and…
Fast forward a few months and we’re in Norfolk where Jake and his – surprise! – very much alive wife are living with her red-trouser wearing, golf-playing, flower-arranging (maybe) parents. Jake is, understandably, a little miffed. But at least he has his Scottish father – who he never knew – to track down so that’ll get him out of the house for a few weeks. And guess, where he ends up…? Yes, the same remote hotel as Stella. And naturally Stella’s alluring green eyes prove a far better prospect that Mel’s pleading ones…
Despite this being a love story, the tale of Jake and Stella’s lust across continents is the least interesting thing about the novel – this would have been a far better book if it hadn’t been for their romance-by-numbers. There’s the suffocating, almost sinister closeness of the sisters; that sense of being an outsider; the restlessness of people who never feel they belong anywhere; Stella’s lurking dark secret (all very Donna Tartt) . I loved the Hong Kong scenes; O’Farrell lived there for a while and her vivid descriptions evoked the suffocating heat, the exotic smell of barbeque pork, wet pavements, metal and incense. But as characters, Stella and Jake are as flat as these Hong Kong scenes are 3D and their love affair is the usual will-they-won’t-they-whoops-a misunderstanding!-aw-he’s-tracked-her-down-and-proposed-oh!-she’s-said-no storyline that I’ve read and seen in films/TV so many times that despite O’Farrell’s skill as a writer, I lost interest towards the end.
O’Farrell’s appeal is obvious: I gobbled this up in a weekend and perhaps my frustration with the two central characters and their sappy ending was partly due to my immersion in what was, for the most part, an absorbing tale laced with ominous undertones, O’Farrell sucking you in with her dark arts. This isn’t the end for O’Farrell and me, but there will be a pause before I pick up another one of her novels (I’m rather tempted by The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).
by Suzanne Elliott