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Two people in different parts of the world - one with a secret, the other looking for a long-lost answer - come together in an unlikely spot, to discover themselves, as well as each other. This is the story behind Maggie O'Farrell's third novel, "The Distance Between Us". Yes, there is a romance here, but what puts this above "chick-lit" (not that this is always a bad thing), are the extra pieces that O'Farrell brings to her stories. In this instance, there are several elements.
Jake is a white man who was raised by his single mother in Hong Kong, who gets caught up in a "crush"* on Chinese New Years, resulting in a girl he was dating being almost fatally injured. At the same time, Stella, a London girl with a dark secret gets spooked when she sees someone she thinks is from her troubled past. Both Jake and Stella end up at Kildoune - a fancy B&B in the countryside near Inverness, Scotland.
It is almost impossible to make a good plot summary of this book, because the story is actually quite complex. However, this isn't a difficult read because O'Farrell shines in making the complex make sense and seem very simple. O'Farrell's style is to flit back and forth between the past and the present, and toggle between the different characters. With this novel, we get a double whammy of this as we follow both the stories of Jake and Stella, as well as an added character, Nina - Stella's sister. While this may sound confusing, it isn't at all hard to follow because O'Farrell uses third person, which allows her to point the reader in the right direction. Here again, as in her previous works, she easily side-steps long descriptions of back-story by recounting incidents in flashback, that reveal insights into the characters' pasts which go towards their motivations in the present.
This method also lets us piece the story together ourselves, much like a mystery novel, so that by the final page, we have something whole and complete, but thankfully without any trite or cliched ending. In addition, this gives us a truly three dimensional feel for all the characters in the story. We can almost touch them, and feel we really know what they are like as they develop throughout the novel. Of course, there are minor characters that get lesser emphasis, but that is only as it should be - we need to focus on Jake and Stella, with Nina slightly less developed and everyone else as just dressing for their story. Finally, we grow to care about these people, and with Maggie's usual open-ended finish, we can also imagine what happens after the last paragraph - which I always prefer to books that tie everything up in too convenient a manner.
I only have two niggles with this book. One is that while we know very clearly how Jake got to Kildoune, the incident that makes Stella run away from London doesn't impress us much, and is a touch too obscurely described. This meant I had to go back and re-read that passage to understand it, and it still seemed less obvious than Jake's reason for arriving at their meeting point. The other problem is that while Stella, despite doing something as immature as running away, seems much more mature than Jake, and therefore he seems as if he'd be a bit too young for Stella to be interested in. This isn't actually the case, but that's the feeling I got when reading the book.
Other than this, the book simply flows beautifully, and you'll find yourself reading this fairly quickly, and wanting to see what happens next - in other words, a true page-turner. O'Farrell's prose here is, as usual, just lovely and evocative, without being flowery. For instance, we are introduced to Jake with this opening paragraph of the book: "He wakes to find himself splayed like a starfish across the bed, his mind running full tilt. On the other side of the room, the fan turns towards him then turns away, as if offended." Then in the next section we meet Stella with: "The bus isn't coming. Stella pulls her scarf closer around her throat and stands on tiptoe to gaze down the line of traffic." With this, we already have a good idea of how different these two people are, and how their situations and locations are obviously diverse.
In all, O'Farrell's third book is a really nice read, and shows nicely how she continued to develop her style since her initial and second novels. I enjoyed this more than her debut outing, but to be honest, I think I liked "My Lover's Lover" a touch more than this, although I think many O'Farrell fans may disagree with me. Still, all three of these first books pale in quality compared to "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lenox", which still remains my favourite, so far. I can't say that this book will appeal to as many men as it will to women, but I also wouldn't call this "chick-lit" either - it is, first and foremost, an interesting story, with a well developed plot and interesting characters, making it simply an all-round lovely read. Considering all this, I can certainly recommend this book, but can only give it four out of five stars due to those two niggles.
Davida Chazan © July 2010
This book is available new from Amazon for £4.74 or through their marketplace from 1p.
From Amazon, the details of this book are: Paperback: 384 pages, Publisher: Headline Review (31 Jan 2005), ISBN-10: 0755302664 ISBN-13: 978-0755302666
This novel was the winner of the 2005 Somerset Maughm Award.
Maggie O'Farrell's web page can be found at http://www.maggieofarrell.com/
For those who want to read about the 1993 Hong Kong Crush, here's an article about it here http://tinyurl.com/3725cfg