Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Review: You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
Title: You Had Me At Hello
Author: Mhairi McFarlane
Rating: 4 Stars
You Had Me At Hello is the best type of romance. And by that, I obviously mean that it is effortlessly humorous, realistic to a flaw, and downright witty. McFarlane writes a love story that is only part true love, with a main course of friendship, side dish of embarrassment, and a drink of nostalgia. What makes this contemporary novel work as well as it does is precisely because it tries, but not too hard. Unlike a Sophie Kinsella which will often have you in peels of laughter or Sara Manning which usually has my stomach up in anxious knots (all while sighing simultaneously, might I add!), McFarlane is a much-needed mix of the two: the delightful urge to keep flipping the pages to know what happens right alongside the clever humor.
Although You Had Me At Hello starts off present-day with Rachel and Ben, our protagonist and love interest, in their early thirties, there are plenty of flashbacks to their time spent together in university. Unlike most novels, though, there is no pattern to these flashbacks. If anything, they are few and far between, spaced just far enough to have readers curious, once again, about Rachel and Ben's past but not too close to deviate from the current story at hand. And what a story it is!
Rachel, after dating Rhys for thirteen years, suddenly realizes that he isn't the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with. While the two have been together since before Rachel went off to college, their honeymoon period ended a long time ago and, unfortunately for her, she's realizing just a little too late. And so, off comes the engagement ring and on to packing Rachel goes, heartbroken at ending such a comfortable relationship and nervous for her future. Once moved in to the new apartment she finally finds, however, Ben shows up. Or rather, Caroline - one of Rachel's close friends from her college days - sees him in the library and before she can quite talk herself out of it, Rachel finds herself in the library too, "accidentally" bumping into Ben.
After ten years, there are obvious differences in her ex best friend. Rachel and Ben used to be inseparable throughout college, constantly a source of support for one another until, suddenly, Ben disappeared and the two lost contact. Now, seeing each other after ten years is both a pleasant surprise and an unwelcome shock. Especially since Ben is happily married. But Rachel only wants to reinstate their lost friendship and though she is still in love with her best friend after all these years, not all loves are meant to be...or are they?
First and foremost, I should make one thing perfectly clear: this is not a cheating book. No sirree. You Had Me At Hello transitions perfectly from Rachel's present-day dilemmas back to her university days, back when she was dating Rhys and Ben was obviously in love with her. McFarlane times her reveal perfectly, keeping the true reasons for Ben's sudden departure and Rachel's tumultuous feelings hidden until almost unbearable. And yet, it never feels as if information is being purposefully withheld. Rachel's day-to-day life is incredibly honest, chronicling her life as a journalist to the struggles she faces at work, the discussions within her friend circle, and a frank representation of her own difficulties launching back into the dating world.
At 31, having just broken off her engagement to the man she has been dating for 13 years, Rachel isn't in the ideal situation. Moreover, her single friend, Mindy, is also in the same boat as Rachel is: early thirties with no sight of The One. McFarlane presents us with a variety of couples, from Caroline's marriage to Ben's and the honesty with which these relationships are depicted, not to mention the stigma of remaining a single woman past her prime childbearing years without a husband, two children, and the white picket fence, is appealing. Since it is so rare to see this topic approached in such an honest manner, with equal parts optimism, I found it to be a pleasant inclusion. You Had Me At Hello isn't all fun smiles and laughs, dry sarcasm and true wit; it's also the harsh reality of living life either with someone you know isn't The One or with no one at all.
Of course, because this is a contemporary romance there is plenty of swoon-worthy love story in this book too, but I truly loved the raw conversations and bonds established between Rachel's friend circle. If there's anything she does have it's a close group of tight-knit friends who have got her back and a fantastic job that keeps her on her toes. Another friendship Rachel discovers she still has is Ben's. It is impossible not to root for these two after reading about their university friendship, but despite the ten-year gap in conversation and initial awkwardness, Rachel and Ben discover that despite the odds - particularly Ben's wife! - they can still fall back into their easy and trust-worthy friendship. All of these relationship arcs are perfectly paced, being just slow enough to swoon over and melt into, but not too slow as to cause the mind to wander.
I've found that there is just something about giant contemporary novels that grab me. And maybe - just maybe - it's because in all those extra pages, there is more true honesty and raw feeling about life, its relationships, and its struggles than is possible for a shorter novel to encompass. With these larger volumes, not only do I find myself reflecting, thoughtful and contemplating the issue at hand, but I also find myself drawn into the story, characters, and romance in a much more intelligent manner. Needless to say, You Had Me At Hello is a delightful read, perfect for a cold wintery day, and one I do not hesitate to recommend. After all, it did have me at hello! ;)