Focusing on issues of middle-age angst, McKinlay’s novel follows British Eve Petworth and American Jack Cooper forming relationship of an epistolary nature. Jack is a successful writer, a good cook and “all-round terrific guy.” Eve lives in the depths of the English countryside and is marking the anniversary of the death of her mother, who died a few months ago on a cool, bright afternoon. Eve’s issues have mainly to do with her flighty daughter, Izzy, who is not only heartbroken but shocked at the sudden death of her beloved grandmother.
Jack is about to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, an event coming “straight at him like a freight train.” An macho, educated, self-made sort of guy (he’s written a series of successful crime novels and cookbooks), the conflicted Jack falls into bed with lovely Adrienne, a close friend of his neighbor. But even this sudden romance does little to assuage the growing thud on his left temple and groggy sensation of “afternoon hangover regret and hopelessness.” Clearly food will connect Jack and Eve in a series of lovely letters which build up from various angles McKinlay’s central theme: mid-life loneliness and love.
From the first page, I found it hard to believe this was the same author who wrote the stunning The View from Here, a twisted story of dysfunctional relationships with crisp, acerbic dialog which fed the drama of an English girl who meets privileged, devastatingly desperate couples in Mexico and a heartless housebreaker determined to secure his future. In this outing, McKinlay’s penchant for literary adventure has been watered down to support a series of vague and irritating characters in a twisted mess of improbable solutions leading to a conclusion that any reader can see coming a mile away.
While helpless Eve runs off to her therapist to talk about the possibility of getting help and of getting though “the narrow crack in the wall of hopelessness,” Jack wonders if life has passed him by. He moans to his best mate about girls and not having kids, about being on his own and never having a “real marriage“ or even a relationship with a woman he can actually talk to. He soon realizes that a lack of bad habits are not going to be enough to sustain his relationship with Adrienne. He’s also going to have to face up to true bachelorhood--“the real deal”--if he ever wants to be happy. Ironically, Jack’s age difference does nothing to deflate the moony bubble of desire that Adrienne carries for him.
There is a lot of charm, humor, and interest in this book, McKinlay infuses this gentle story with charm, humor, earnestness and a knowledge of small-town color (both in the US and the UK). The letters are central to the story, as is the promise made that Jack and Eve will one day meet in Paris and finally explore their mutual love of food. Jack and Eve have a touching way of evoking their innermost fears and disappointments as they grow in depth and develop an understanding of their current situations. Eve, in particular, can be witty and self-deprecating. One of the inadvertent highlights of the book is her dilemma over how to behave like the mother of the bride at Izzy’s wedding as much for Izzy’s sake as for her own.
McKinlay adequately explores the relationships between her characters, but other books have done a much better job of describing how one can so easily be drawn into the attractions of a long-distance relationship. While it’s unsurprising that Jack would probably have fallen in love with any woman who wasn’t an American, Eve’s over-involvement in her daughter’s life comes as a bolt from the blue. She is a woman bored with the English countryside and her “quiet life.” In search of a cause and well-meaning to the last, she meddles in Izzy’s impending nuptials while constantly judging Simon Petworth, Izzy’s facile, pandering fiancé.
I find these kind of light-hearted epistolary love narratives somewhat gimmicky and often strained, especially because the letters tend to rely heavily upon previous mutual understanding which never seems to translate well into good storytelling. Either the reader is forced to accept that the correspondents write erudite and clever tomes filled with unnecessary (to the recipient) minutiae with each and every letter they send, or the details feel too sketchy, unsatisfying, or even confusing. In other words stories utilizing this format often don’t work that well. Whatever the case, the BBC has just optioned the film rights. Maybe McKinlay’s tale will make a better movie?