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Monday, March 12, 2018

'Here's Looking at You' by Mhairi McFarlane

From the BLURB:

Anna Alessi – history expert, possessor of a lot of hair and an occasionally filthy mouth – seeks nice man for intelligent conversation and Mills & Boon moments.

 Despite the oddballs that keep turning up on her dates, Anna couldn't be happier. As a 30-something with a job she loves, life has turned out better than she dared dream.

However, things weren't always this way, and her years spent as the ‘Italian Galleon' of an East London comprehensive are ones she'd rather forget.

So when James Fraser – the architect of Anna's final humiliation at school – walks back into her life, her world is turned upside down. But James seems a changed man. Polite. Mature. Funny, even. People can change, right? So why does Anna feel like she's a fool to trust him?

Hilarious and poignant, ‘Here's Looking At You' will have you laughing one minute and crying the next. The new must-read novel from #1 bestseller Mhairi McFarlane.

‘Here’s Looking at You’ was Mhairi McFarlane’s 2013 romance novel – now having read, I have thus completed my pillaging of her backlist … and am now sitting with the rest of the bandwagon, waiting for information on her little-known planned February 2019 release. *le sigh*

So I didn’t LOVE my last Mhairi read, before this one, as much as I’d hoped to – ‘Who’s That Girl’ certainly didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth (um. It’s Mhairi McFarlane, I think it’s impossible for her to write a bad book?) but truth be told, the blurb of ‘Here’s Looking At You’ is more up my alley… it reminded me a little of the 2010 Kristen Bell movie ‘You Again’ which is about a woman who was tormented in high school, discovering as an adult that her brother is about to marry her teen tormentor.

‘Here’s Looking At You’ is told in duel-perspectives (the only Mhairi novel to use this device!) – there’s Anna, who was regularly humiliated and bullied physically and emotionally throughout high school. She’s a grown woman now, with friends she adores and a job she loves – she’s even done a complete physical overhaul, and is deemed ‘beautiful’ by many, even if her newfound body hasn’t bought much more confidence or companionship.

James wasn’t Anna’s frequent tormentor, but he was her high school’s golden boy and someone she privately pined for … until he partook in an awful public humiliation that scarred her for life. Nowadays James is a separated comms & marketing man, still with the handsome swagger, but somewhat dented these days since his beautiful wife of one year, Eva, left him for inexplicable reasons.

James and Anna first cross paths at a high school reunion – where James fails to recognise her, and Anna thinks she has expelled her demons. Then they cross paths again when they’re thrown together for a project at Anna’s work, and while Anna still keeps her identity a secret, she tries expelling some of those demon-memories still lurking, by making James’s work life hell.

Clearly I am a masochist, because I loved this Mhairi book – and honestly think it’s up there with my fave ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ – and possibly because I think the stakes are higher in both those books. ‘It’s Not Me’ has the female protagonist learning that her boyfriend is cheating on her, the night he becomes her fiancée. Similarly, the idea of being thrown together with someone who made your teenage years a waking nightmare is pretty darn high stakes in ‘Here’s Looking At You’ – and kudos to Mhairi, she never once pulls punches or mitigates circumstances.

Anna was bullied and harassed, and it has left psychological scarring. James was an awful person growing up (and seemingly for some of his adult life) and so much of the book is dedicated to him figuring out the kind of person he wants to be, going forward. And it is really wonderful that their romance is a slow-burn that grows from friendship, not physical attraction.

I will admit, it could have been wonderful if Anna hadn’t had a ‘She’s All That’ transformation to hotness – obviously a significant portion of the book is about James not putting two and two together and recognising Anna as the “freak” from high school … but since they were forced together for work, I could imagine an alternative take where she is still that awkward girl, and he doesn’t get given the luxury of wondering if he still would have fallen for her had she not undergone physical transformation. Honestly, at this point, if I have any qualms about Mhairi books it’s that she does tend towards “beautiful people” romance archetypes, and that particular trope of “beautiful people who don’t know that they’re beautiful”. And if any story of hers could have broken that trope for the better, it was this one.

Barring all that – I still loved this book. I loved the duel-narratives, and the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ spin it took (particularly the use of James’s awful school friend as a stand-in for Mr. Wickham) I loved that Anna was a good person who didn’t have to change who she was, but James was the one who had a lot of work and personal overhauling to do to deserve her and be proud of himself.

I read this one in a night, and now I am utterly bereft that I won’t have another Mhairi to dive into. But I am also feeling incredibly full from my gorging on her books and becoming part of the fan-club. My membership was long overdue, so thank you to everyone who constantly recommended her to me!


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