on 2 October 2003
A thoroughly entertaining read which held my interest from cover to cover. The structure and language used is vivid and not only involves you with the characters, but paints an accurate and understandable of life in Brighton and Cuba. At the same time, the storylines in the book held my interest greatly throughout. I couldn't wait to pick it up again when I got home from work! On the strength of this book I subsequently went on to read Emily Barr's eariler books, Baggage and Backpack, both of which I also greatly enjoyed. Full marks to the author and I look forward to her future books.
on 9 July 2003
Full marks to Emily Barr's latest for keeping me up into the small hours, unable to sleep until I'd finished it. Lower than full marks for her publishers, however, who've chosen a cover which makes this dark and gripping book appear indistinguishable from so much of the inferior chick-lit nonsense on the market. This really is not a book to be judged by its cover, and no one in this novel suddenly realises that her longest-standing male best friend is actually the man of her dreams.
Barr's style is relaxed and fluid and the effect is an utterly compelling story which starts innocently enough (perfect couple, plus new baby, in Brighton argue over foreign sabbatical plans, downstairs neighbour living a seedier lifestyle provides sharp contrast to their comfortable world-view) but one is quickly drawn into a more complex, dark and ambiguous narrative when the story moves to Cuba.
There is little more of the plot one can mention without giving too much away; Barr's skill seems to be in turning one's assumptions and judgments about people on their head, and then back again, in the context of humane and sensitive characterisations. All this set in a Havana so well represented that I feel I've lived there myself for a period.
In summary, a gripping book with all the best traits of Barr's earlier novels (sharp sense of humour, spot-on eye for the contradictions and compromises in the lives of twenty-first century westerners, excellent but unobtrusive travel writing, and compelling plot). All misleadingly wrapped up in a mills & boon cover - someone should have a word...
on 15 November 2004
Having already read "Backpack" and "Baggage," I was really looking forward to my next Emily Barr read. The premise for this novel is brilliant - troubled girl becomes obsessed with the 2.4 family living next door, following them to Cuba, ingratiating herself into their lives and finally imagining she can "become" one of them. It has the same intricate and intriguing plot basis as Barr's other books ... but somehow ... something didn't quite work. The plot does keep you reading (despite the unlikely happy-ever-after, typing up of loose ends) and it is worth giving it a go, but the quality of the execution really doesn't live up to Barr's previous work. I blame the editor as much as Barr herself; it's as though no-one read it through after the first draft, before it went to print! Phrasing is awkward, words are poorly selected, the balance of the Brighton / Cuba periods doesn't feel right. I really wish Barr could come back to this and finish off what could so easily have been another absorbing novel. A great idea Emily, but come on, give us a little more of your usual polish in the execution!
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.
on 14 October 2005
This is now one of my favourite books. I'm a very slow reader but it only took me a week to read this book. The melancholy life of the main character, Maggie, grabs your attention, mostly due to sympathy and once that's happened there's no going back. Emily writes beautifully and I could really feel Maggie's emotions throughout the book. This is a truely enthralling read and so different to the chick-lit's i've read perviously - read it now!!!
on 22 February 2014
This is the first Emily Barr book that I read many years ago, but it is one that I always go back to. It has plenty of twists, an interesting setting in Cuba and a lead character with two different sides to her.
Maggie Wilson is pretending that she is happy living in Brighton working at American Express and preparing for the arrival of her niece or nephew. In reality, she is working as a stripper and cannot stand the idea of a new addition to her family due to an issue that occurred in her childhood. For those of you familiar with Barr's works, you will spot a pattern with this and most of her other books. Whilst testing out some baby monitors in her flat, she discovers that she can hear what is going on in the upstairs flat. Libby and David's lives are so much more fascinating than Maggie's life so when they uproot themselves to Cuba for a few months, Maggie follows them.
The character of Maggie intrigues me and horrifies me in equal measure. In fact, sometimes I cannot help but feel sympathetic towards her given her circumstances and other times I want to wring her and say "get a grip on yourself." The idea of not knowing how I will feel about Maggie from one reading of this book to the next keeps this book fresh for me even though I know the outcome. The twist at the end is still shocking no matter how many times I read it. Even going back through the book, although Maggie's more sinister side is more obvious there are no clear signs of how the book will end.
It was this book that got me into Emily Barr's books and got me more into the thriller genre in general. For those of you who have read some of Barr's other books, this is a recommended read even though it follows a similar structure to her other books. I think that Maggie was the inspiration for the character of Helen in Emily Barr's later book 'The Sisterhood', but this still has plenty of surprises.