Recommendation Tuesday: You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
(No, Recommendation Tuesday isn't an actual thing, but I wanted to highlight this book without writing a formal review/think piece/whatever, so I'm running with it.)
The first book I read this year was one I downloaded from Edelweiss on a whim because none of the 500+ books on my Kindle, nor any of the books falling out of my overflowing bookshelves seemed like they'd fit what I was in the mood to read.
I hate winter with a passion, and wanted something light but not shallow to pick me up--and believe it or not, that sort of thing is tough to find. Fortunately, I was lucky enough (after trying some straight-up terrible ones--I'm looking at you, On the Rocks) to stumble upon Scottish author Mhairi McFarlane's You Had Me at Hello, which was extremely popular upon its release in the U.K.
At its core, You Had Me at Hello is a story about friendship.
University's like this little world, a bubble of time separate from everything before and everything after.
Rachel and Ben met their first day at college and instantly became an inseparable duo. We see their friendship grow throughout college through a series of scattered flashbacks from present day, which finds Rachel and Ben separated for several years.
In present day, 31-year old Rachel is still living in Manchester and has broken up with the boyfriend she's been with since high school and is on her own for the first time. The book chronicles the downs and ups of her journalism career, complicated yet tightly-knit friendships and the realities of confronting the one that got away in the form of Ben, who--oh yeah--reappears in her life and is now married and seems to be enveloped by sadness.
His sadness was almost palpable, like moisture in the air before it rains. Although this was Manchester, it was probably about to rain anyway.
Let me get this out of the way, while Ben is now married and is clearly the endgame Rachel hopes for, this is not a book about cheating or any sort of clandestine relationship.
Instead, it's a witty and gentle narrative about nostalgia, what-ifs and the fact that even at 31, a lot of us still have a whole lot of growing up to do.
One thing that surprised me was how much I loved the Manchester setting of You Had Me at Hello. It was so unexpected to discover such a vibrantly-drawn setting in a book in this genre (it's basically chick-lit, though UK chick-lit is a bit different than US), which is typically plot-heavy.
I like the city late at night, the blasts of music and the splashes of light cast from bars that are still open, shoals of brightly-dressed clubber, the beeping taxis and the greasy, savoury smell of meat and onions from the burger vans.
I've never been to Manchester (or really the UK beyond Heathrow--I know, I know, I lived in Ireland and I never went to the UK, it's weird, all right) but You Had Me at Hello made me feel like what it must be like to live that city, with the people and smells and everything--McFarlane's writing is very sensory in bringing Manchester to life.
This is the sort of story that simply worked for me.
The flashbacks were nicely sprinkled throughout when the Rachel's character arc needed that illumination and I think it was better than the ordered back and forth that's more typical (it was similar to It Felt Like a Kiss in that manner). And the focus on the messiness of adulthood was just spot-on. The humor hit a sweet spot of sharp dialogue without ever straying toward caustic.
Sure, I wish that there had been more present-day Ben and Rachel page-time, but I don't necessarily think that would have served the story, just readers' hearts clamoring for more of these two fast friends who maybe could be something else.
McFarlane has another book coming out in the US as well, Here's Looking at You, and I'm crossing my fingers that it stands up to You Had Me at Hello. It seems these UK chick-lit authors really know what they're doing, doesn't it?
Note: The ebook is current $1.99 on Kindle, I just discovered--I'd get on that while the getting is good.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.