Orla, a primary school teacher, is still at home in Ireland while actor boyfriend Sim works over in London, but although it's hard to be apart, there are some benefits to doing the long distance thing, not least Sim's awesome card writing skills. So when Valentine's day comes around, Orla is excited for what the day might bring. She's expecting a little something in the post, but she's not expecting the phone call that comes, nor the news that comes with it. Sim has died, suddenly. And it's not just his life that is over. On the verge of a proposal, Orla feels her life is finished too. She flees to London to recover some of Sim's possessions, taking with her the as yet unopened Valentine's card he sent, with its unfulfilled promises.
But London doesn't give her everything she needs to move past his tragic death. Her search for his precious journal takes her deep into this life over there, a life which, she is coming to realise, he wasn't fully honest with her about. With answers not entirely forthcoming, she decides to settle in London for a while herself, and immerse herself in his last few months. And, as she gets to know more and more about what he was up to, she realises there are sides of him she never knew. Will it be her eccentric new friend Maude, Sim's most recent co-star the glamorous older lady Anthea or his agent Reece who hold the most clues to what his life was like over his final few months.
This is quite a 'neat' book where things come together nicely to make the story work. Once she decides to stay in London, Orla easily finds a job teaching English to foreign students, which is close enough to her former profession for most readers to accept the switch unquestioningly. The missing journal gives Orla a reason to stay for a while, which is a bit of a stretch considering she was only popping over for a few days, but copious phone and Skype chats keep her in touch with friends and family she didn't say good bye to, and the relatively short distance she's moved, and lack of language barrier, seem to make it all work too - it's not like she's moved to Australia, or to Japan.
I enjoyed this book because I knew there was going to be more to Sim than met the eye, but I couldn't quite work out what his secrets had been. The Valentine's card angle works because although Orla does open it after a while, it's sufficiently far into the story for you to be caring about other things beyond what it does or doesn't say. Little contemporary references like Stop 'n Grow help add dimensions to the character of Orla, bringing her to life as a whole person and not just a recent semi-widow, while the added dimensions of her students and the bookshelves give her more of a life in the here and now.
It's an easy read that might be just a smidge too long. Whenever I picked it back up I had to recap a few pages to remind myself where I was up to, because the story skips between Orla in the present, her memories of Sim, and extracts from his by now infamous journal.
The parallels between this and 'P.S. I Love You' are impossible to ignore, but the story is at the same time quite different (and, in my opinion, much better). I think it's quite daring for the publishers to be calling this THE Valentine's Day must-read of 2013, not because it's not good but because since when was that even a thing? Beach read or festive read, sure, but Valentine's Day? But, I can see their point though I'm pretty sure it will appeal to singletons more than loved up couples, especially when the story gets going. The romance is there for some couples, but there's pain and heartbreak for others.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk Out in January 2013, it's available to pre-order now. Just a thought, but if they're giving you a month to read it prior to 14th Feb, maybe they understand it's on the long side too...