Top critical review
Cracking up in Cuba
on 31 March 2016
When Maggie's boring boyfriend Mark dumps her, she moves from Edinburgh to Brighton, swaps a job in Human Resources for one in lapdancing, and seems to be planning to starve herself to death. Until a badly-fitted baby monitor leads her to hear the conversations of the couple who live in the maisonette above her basement flat. Gradually Maggie becomes obsessed with this couple, David and Libby, who she sees as having the perfect life, with the perfect baby. She determines that she must get to know them - and when David and Libby move to Cuba so that David can study Spanish there on sabbatical, Maggie follows them to enrol at the same language school - after all, knowing no one, David and Libby will need a friend, won't they? But Maggie's plans are somewhat disrupted by her best friend Yasmin, who knows the extent of Maggie's depression (and it's not just due to what happened with Mark, or even to what happened with Maggie's previous boyfriend Ivan, but goes back to her childhood) and suspects that Maggie's after more than a cosy friendship with David and Libby. Yasmin hurries to Cuba to keep an eye on Maggie, and try to get her help. But Maggie seems reluctant to accept it. Meanwhile her plans are growing ever more dramatic - it seems that she doesn't just want to be David and Libby's friend, but to take over Libby's life - or is that all she wants?
Emily Barr got more accomplished with each of her first three novels. This book is more psychologically complex that 'Backpack', and better structured and more gripping than the rather hit-and-miss 'Baggage'. There are some superb description of Havana, and the Cuban attitude to British visitors, and a nice creepy sense of suspense, as the reader begins to realize quite how crazy Maggie really is. Unlike some reviewers, I also liked the way the novel moved between chapters told from Libby's point of view and from Maggie's, showing how very different the women were but also, in their neediness, their odd similarities. And the second half is a real pageturner. There's some rather nice writing about female friendship too, and about reparation for old misdemeanours. As light reading with a bit of a dark twist, I'd highly recommend the book.
However, I've only given it three stars primarily because I found all three of the main female characters very annoying. Barr's later novels ('The First Wife', 'The Perfect Lie', 'Plan B') feature really interesting, likeable narrators who you care about. But Maggie, Libby and Yasmin aren't particularly interesting. Libby (real name Liberty - ouch!) comes across as spoilt and petulant, though she mysteriously becomes much nicer later in the novel. Her behaviour towards her husband David is pretty upsetting as she doesn't seem to really appreciate him at all. Yasmin is brash and comes across as rather silly (which makes her devotion to Maggie not entirely ring true, particularly bearing in mind her treacherous behaviour towards her friend years before). And if she was a bright London University graduate, would she still be messing around living at home in between bouts of travelling in her late twenties? As for Maggie - I think Barr needed to do some more reading about mental illness to bring this character off, interesting idea though it was. She seemed unable to work out quite how crazy Maggie was meant to be. I found it difficult to believe that a woman who was mentally ill enough to do what Maggie did in the book's final section could have carried out the plan to move to Cuba and befriend David and Libby so clearly and coherently, or that a woman in this state would have made the abrupt recovery that Maggie seemed to. And if Maggie was prone to such violent mood swings, wouldn't they have manifested themselves much earlier in her life? How had she managed to seem normal for so long? I also didn't believe that she'd have gone straight from an office job into lapdancing, unless she had some very deep self-loathing that she wanted to express (which wasn't ever made clear). In the end, I didn't feel she was a believable character, as her mood swings were too abrupt, almost complete personality-changes. I got the feeling that Barr might have changed her mind about her plot towards the end of the book, but not adapted the character to go with her revisions. The ultra-happy ending didn't entirely ring true either.
An interesting and involving book, but one I didn't feel entirely worked. Barr was even with her third book much better than the bulk of chick-lit - but she got even better later.