Romantic Reads

- Emily Holman 23 February 2008

Cecelia Ahern

A Place Called Here

This book is unadulterated chick-lit. Or at least that’s what the cover designers were instructed to aim for by the marketing people at Harper-Collins. The obscenely pink paperback cover of my edition–sprinkled, though it is, with chick-lit-esque stencils of sunglasses, a mobile phone, a flip-flop, flowers and wiggly creeper patters–is enough to make me reach for my sunglasses.

However, Cecilia Ahern (“No. 1 bestselling author of PS, I Love You”) does have something different. Her heroine, the ironically named Sandy Shortt, is no cutely neurotic Bridget Jones–she actually is dysfunctional and anti-social. She is also stunning, slim, leggy and intelligently introspective, but in the opening chapters these characteristics are gratifyingly unhelpful to her.

Glamour, that much cited volume of literary criticism, comments: “There’s more than a touch of the fairytale about Cecilia Ahern’s novels.” And true to the original nature of fairytales, Ahern’s world is not a brilliant, morally simple playground in which we may safely live our untroubled lives. Sandy is obsessed with that which is lost–not merely “misplaced” but actually lost. Disrupting all her close relationships, this obsession dictates even her career path: running a missing persons agency with a difference-she doesn’t give up. One day, however, it dictates her right out of her life and into the place where the lost things go: the also ironically named “Here”. It is in this strange half-world of lost people, memories and things that Sandy must confront her obsession and, worse, her self and her need to go home. So while Sandy is searching on the inside and a new outside, her frustrated and worried client Jack Ruttle (helping Sandy look for his missing younger brother, Donal) is searching for her in the world where she is now one of the lost.

Both Sandy and Jack have “issues”, and there are moments when this book risks becoming a trashy, leave-it-in-the-hotel-room holiday read. Ahern’s delicate management of the narrative and Sandy’s voice, however, ensure that pathos wins over cliché. The surreal element of Sandy’s experiences in Here does not detract from the believability of the characterisation, and Ahern does not shy away from their less pleasant facets. There is a happy ending, of course, but it’s not perfect; Sandy is still irritable and difficult, most of those close to her do not or cannot believe the story she tells and Jenny-May Butler, the girl across Sandy’s street who disappeared when they were ten and arguably set the whole thing in motion, does not return to her grief-stricken mother. There is a romantic element missing from this review, but this is only because to tell you everything would ruin the story. Typically of Ahern, it’s not perfect, but it’s happy in the end and this surreally realistic (or realistically surreal–I’m not sure) and optimistic book–“beautifully bittersweet” as Heat has it–is thus the perfect Valentine’s antidote. Not too sweet, not too bitter.

– Eloise Hayes

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Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach has received particular scrutiny from reviewers because of its length. At barely 170 pages, the novel is a short one. But the length fits the time scale, which focuses on one evening–Florence and Edward’s wedding night. The novel is thoughtful, demonstrating how much can change in a short space of time. It shows how action, or lack of action, at a pivotal point can have devastating effects that last a lifetime.

But McEwan’s book isn’t at all static, despite its apparent lack of action. It moves smoothly from past to present, explaining the protagonists’ motivations in the process. Their past experiences have created the Florence and Edward of the present moment, who each make exasperatingly silly decisions. These choices never seem implausible: indeed, we come away with a new understanding of man’s capacity to make strange decisions. Whilst the choices the couple make frustrate might the uninvolved reader, the insight into their backgrounds prepares us for them.

It is set in 1962 England, and no other period could render the characters’ actions so understandable. The novel explores this time of change; there are consistent references to “the end of that famous decade”, to the onset of sexual freedom. The lack of openness in the newlyweds’ relationship derives as much from their time as from the characters themselves–and with devastating consequences. The build-up of unexpressed emotion leads to violent, regrettable outbursts which threaten the relationship as much as the lack of communication itself.

On Chesil Beach shows off McEwan’s ever-burgeoning maturity. Written in the third-person, it successfully follows the characters’ thoughts, reactions and memories. Their different perspectives of the same event are intertwined, demonstrating admirably the differences of character. McEwan’s maturity also comes across with his new-found preference for a subtle denouement that is universally applicable. Earlier in his career his foreboding hints of violence (Edward is given a background of hostile aggression) would have seen the denouement take the form of murder, but this time McEwan refrains from the obvious ending. And the actual ending is far more relevant to the average reader, far more poignant–and, ultimately, more horrifying.

– Emily Holman