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Even as an O'Farell fan, I cannot recommend this
on 13 December 2017
It seems to be quite commonplace in the negative reviews for ‘The Distance Between Us’ for the reviewers to actually be quite fond of Maggie O’Farrell’s other works but let down somewhat by this particular book.
I definitely fall into this category as well; ‘This Must Be the Place’ and ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ are among my favourite books I’ve read in recent years, and I’ve very much enjoyed her others as well (I think ‘My Lover’s Lover’ and her autobiography are the only ones I haven’t read), but in contrast to those, ‘The Distance Between Us’ falls painfully short for me. O’Farrell is normally very adept at putting us directly into the shoes of her flawed but endearing and believable characters as we get snippets of their lives and gradually piece a narrative together (generally out of chronological order), and while her style of narration is still very much evident in this book, I think the story overall is hindered by two major points.
***Mild spoilers ahead***
The first is that the key focus of the story is a blossoming love between its two characters, but this love and the affections involved never had time to develop and seem to spring out of nowhere. The first half of the book covers the lives of our protagonists Stella and Jake, from opposite ends of the globe and how they find themselves in the same place. This section of the book echoes O’Farrell’s approach in her other books much more and is enjoyable to read; we find out about all the influencing forces in the extraordinary-but-believable lives of Stella and Jake very organically through reading the thoughts of their families (extending as far back as Jake’s estranged grandmother, even) and learning about their ancestry and the accompanying effects this has on them living in places they are not native to. This slow, character-building work is arguably the best part of O’Farrell’s writing, and probably the most enjoyable aspect of this book. However, the culmination of the plot, when the two finally meet, undoes all this swiftly as the two characters (who we spend half the book learning are guarded, slightly awkward and independent individuals) immediately fall hopelessly in love with each other and then begin acting in ways that seem to deeply contrast everything that has come before. It feels like a separate novel completely, and while we do still see flashbacks that expand the backstories for the characters, it feels somewhat pointless as these revelations have no real bearing on the current events at all, as the characters become defined purely by their love for each other. While it is briefly acknowledged by the characters, we get no real context or build-up for this ‘love at first sight’, and if you cannot enjoy a story where the romance isn’t developed beforehand, you may well find the book un-salvageable after this halfway point, as I did.
The other major issue with the book as the character of Jake, whom I found to be staggeringly unlikable. His backstory is interesting, and you can easily empathise with the difficult situation he finds himself in during the first half of the story, but his likability erodes quite rapidly after he decides to flee from his problems and meets Stella. I’ve already expressed my dislike for the way the characters fall for each other so quickly, but the character of Jake seems to take this to extremes with repeated descriptions of how obsessed he becomes with Stella, and it only gets worse. Far more troublingly, he becomes quite aggressive and controlling as well, and this is where I really took issue with the book: it is never quite clear whether this aspect of the character is intentional or whether this is meant to convey the passion of the romance, but I found it quite bizarre to read. Jake is certainly never called out by any other character for how his behavior and repeatedly justifies himself (when Stella is trying to avoid him, he physically restrains her, drags her into a laundry room against her will and locks the door while exclaiming how difficult she is, later explaining it is his ‘only option’), so the reader is left to assume this behavior is fine and Jake is meant to remain a protagonist. This, with the way he seems to repeatedly order her to do things when her attention is away from him (and Stella’s reluctant obedience), and his constant drilling of personal questions all give off a very nasty vibe that makes the spontaneous love story even harder to fathom.
While I didn’t enjoy the book myself, I can’t give it a lower rating because it may resonate much more with readers who don’t have preconceptions of Maggie O’Farrell, and indeed I may have just missed a key theme of the story that others pick up on right away because I do find it hard to believe that such an unremarkable and straightforward love story could have been produced by an otherwise talented author.