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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.
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VINE VOICEon 3 January 2014
I absolutely loved After You'd Gone, my first Maggie O'Farrell book, but when I followed that soon after, with My Lover's Lover, I was disappointed. Three years later, I decided to try another of the author's books and was pleasantly surprised with The Distance Between Us. There were some vague similarities with my first read, but I was quickly drawn into the story and enjoyed it. This review is actually from a re-read, as I later acquired an abridged audio copy of the book and decided to enjoy it again.

I was particularly drawn to the character of Jake, who lived all his life in Hong Kong, with a British mother. I found myself identifying with him, as I have raised four children as expats in Dubai. Although he is comfortable with the Chinese, he can never quite fit in to the Chinese community. As a result of a tragic accident, he finds himself married to a girl he has no feelings for, back in a country he cannot identify with. So he runs away to Scotland on a search for his unknown father.

There are similarities in the situation in which Stella finds herself. She lives in Britain but is of Italian extraction. She is very close to her sister Nina but is alienated by the other children. She is also running away, though it's not until near the end of the book that we actually find out what she is running from.

Inevitably, Jake and Stella meet up, sparks fly and explanations are finally given. While somewhat formulaic in this respect, the wonderful descriptions and the time spent in Hong Kong, made this an excellent read.

Also read by Maggie O'Farrell:
After You'd Gone (5 stars)
My Lover's Lover (3 stars)
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (5 stars)
Hand That First Held Mine (5 stars)
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on 23 February 2012
Maggie O'Farrell's third novel deals with two people, both from slightly complicated multi-cultural backgrounds, who meet by chance, find they are perfect for each other, but have to fight through a lot of present and past complications to get to the stage of having a life together. It is also about how families make us, and sibling relationships.

Scots-Italian Stella is a radio producer, travelling from country to country on short-term jobs. She is very close to her Italian relatives in Edinburgh (particularly her mother), to her quiet Scots father and to her difficult, volatile older sister Nina, but will not put down roots near her family or anywhere else. A strange meeting on Hungerford Bridge in London with a stranger causes Stella to have a strange fit of terror (why we learn much later), and she flees London and her current short-term job in radio for a hotel in the Scots countryside where she takes on a job as a chamber made.

Jake, son of a hippy mother and raised in Hong Kong, is British but has never been to England - until a tragedy at Chinese New Year leads to him impulsively agreeing to marry an Englishwoman. Coming to the UK, Jake realizes what a mistake he has made. Trying to escape his new bride and the life that is already weighing him down, he heads off to the Scots countryside, to a hotel where he believes his unknown father once worked - and where Stella is working...

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks contrasting to episodes in the present day, O'Farrell tells us more about Stella and Jake, and their families. We learn about Stella's clannish Italian/Scots family, her sister Nina's near-fatal illness as a child and how it changed the girls' relationship for good, with Stella almost becoming the older sister. We learn about Stella's mother and her anxiety for her girls. We learn about Jake's hippy mother who left Wales and her own difficult parents and got pregnant after a chance encounter and brief love affair in India. And, finally, we learn about the secret that has blighted Stella's life, and in a gripping final section, see whether she can actually break free from the past, and whether her sister Nina will let her go, and whether Jake can emerge from his increasingly messy private life and make a new beginning.

There's lots that's very enjoyable about this book. O'Farrell is fascinating on Jake and Stella's family backgrounds and how they've made them the people they are, and brings Scotland and Hong Kong very vividly to life. She makes Stella a very appealing character, and her relationship with sister Nina is certainly believable, though I found myself disliking Nina quite a lot and wishing I didn't. (O'Farrell never makes it quite clear how much Nina's manipulative and unstable behaviour as an adult is due to her illness; I guess it never would be clear though). The mystery in Stella's life is well portrayed, held cunningly back until the last minute. And Jake, though I didn't find him quite as sympathetic as Stella, and a bit self-involved, is also very interesting, and O'Farrell writes well about his longing to find out about his father. The only things that stops me giving the book a top rating is that firstly I felt Jake's reckless decision to marry his dying girlfriend - who then recovers - in Hong Kong wasn't quite believable, and secondly I wasn't entirely convinced by Stella and Jake's love for each other. O'Farrell gives them some lovely scenes together, but one's never sure exactly what the pull between them is (what they have in common, other than physical attraction, whether they envisage a longterm partnership). Both seem slightly remote people to be feeling such passion for each other - and the ending was rather deliberately 'cinematic' - I suppose a tribute to Jake's work in films. (Also one other query - why did O'Farrell kill off the sisters' cat? I thought that was just a bit of gratuitous nastiness.) Not my absolutely favourite O'Farrell but still a very good and rewarding read, and one I'd definitely read again several times.
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on 20 February 2018
Don't be put off by negative reviews. I loved this novel but was perturbed by the views of some others and so delayed reading it. I now regret this! I was totally absorbed by all the characters and cared passionately about them. A beautifully written novel. Read and enjoy!
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on 27 September 2014
I thought this was a very good read. I particularly liked the way she wrote one chapter about one main character, then a chapter about another main character. Unlike some books where the end is predictable after a few chapters, this story does not. I will not elaborate on the ending to spoil it for other readers. I will be buying more of her books.
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on 25 October 2013
A little different from her other novels but still enjoyable. I don't like to discuss plot or characters since I believe it spoils the read, but fair to say that the eventual links that were made in this one weren't so likely or believable somehow? A bit constructed, a bit contrived, but a decent read overall.
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on 14 February 2018
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on 2 May 2015
I was glad to read another book by this author and it didn`t disappoint. Really good story and I couldn`t put it down, just kept on reading till the end.
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on 28 January 2017
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on 22 March 2014
took a while to see how the characters could possibly relate to each other. Well told and gripping tale showing great understanding of human psychology.
A very good read
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