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Friday, March 9, 2018

'Who’s That Girl?' by Mhairi McFarlane

From the BLURB:

When Edie is caught in a compromising position at her colleagues' wedding, all the blame falls on her – turns out that personal popularity in the office is not that different from your schooldays. Shamed online and ostracised by everyone she knows, Edie's forced to take an extended sabbatical – ghostwriting an autobiography for hot new acting talent, Elliot Owen. Easy, right?

Wrong. Banished back to her home town of Nottingham, Edie is not only dealing with a man who probably hasn't heard the word ‘no' in a decade, but also suffering an excruciating regression to her teenage years as she moves back in with her widowed father and judgy, layabout sister.

When the world is asking who you are, it's hard not to question yourself. Who's that girl? Edie is ready to find out.

‘Who’s That Girl?’ was the 2016 rom-com novel from UK author, Mhairi McFarlane.

Okay – well – I broke my own damn rules with this one. I’d been so happily ploughing through Mhairi McFarlane’s entire backlist, working on the assumption that she had a new book coming out this year and it didn’t really matter if I got through all her books, if a new one was on the way. Then – according to Goodreads – the release date of her next book has apparently shifted to 2019. Egads! Suddenly the realisation dawned that once I got through ‘Who’s That Girl?’ and ‘Here's Looking at You’ – I’d have nothing left. I needed to start rationing my reading … well, that lasted a week.

And maybe it’s because I forced myself to slow down *ever so slightly* with this one, but it is so far my least favourite Mhairi book (and further confirmation for me that I don’t think ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ will be knocked from my top spot?). It may be the one that promises to be a modern ‘Notting Hill’ with an ordinary woman falling for a rising film and TV star, but I found it to be the most drawn-out and at times, a little bit clunky and cumbersome.

So – as with so many Mhairi stories, this book’s premise and the downward-trajectory arc of the protagonist begins with cheating. When copywriter Edie is spotted getting snogged by the groom at his own wedding, it release a maelstrom of online hatred and office abuse – forcing her boss to send her back home to the wilds of Nottingham to ghost-write the autobiography of ‘Game of Thrones’ knock-off heartthrob, Elliot Ownes.

But what starts as hostility eventually turns to curiosity, sympathy and then genuine affection between the two of them. And then the complications really kick in.

Right, so – first of all – a lot of stuff happens in this book, and I was a bit surprised to discover that the first considerable chunk of set-up takes up nearly 100 pages, dealing entirely in Edie’s scarlet-woman accusations at the wedding. It takes nearly 100 pages for Edie and Elliott to even meet, which … is a long time, in a romance. Or am I nuts? I mean; it probably took that long for Delia to meet Adam too. But it was still sort of frustrating that the set-up in ‘Who’s That Girl?’ works to establish that Edie did not want to be kissed by her co-worker Jack, at his wedding to her other co-worker, Charlotte – frustrating because I think the rest of the book injected that first-half set-up a little clunkily into the falling-for-a-celebrity second-half that the book became?

I think Mhairi is a wonderful romance author who raises really great points about the grey-areas of love, and she will often add layers of complication so cheating is never straight-up, black and white and there are always two sides to a story … in this book though, I think I wished Jack had gotten to be more of a character to really create push-pull for Edie, but as it is – it’s established that they had an office flirtation (“work wife” is never uttered, but probably noxiously appropriate) then the wedding debacle happens and he’s cut adrift and repeatedly written as an absolute wanker. So I think I slightly missed the nuance and subversive tropes that Mhairi so often plays around with flipping in her works, because Jack is never a contender for anything but antagonist?

As to Elliot Owen, the proper romantic interest of the story … look, yeah – lovely. He’s an actor off the back of a popular Game of Thrones-esque TV show in which he played a loincloth-clad prince. Apparently there’s much fan discussion in the books community as to whether he’s more a Kit Harrington or a Richard Madden, though I think his storyline and breakout popularity sounds more like the Jason Momoa trajectory (even though Elliot is physically described as being closer to Harrington and Madden) … but, honestly, envisioning Michiel Huisman worked better for my imagination. Overall though, Elliot was just a bit blandly lovely for me. There’s even something added to his background to try and make him more complicated and multi-faceted, but again – this was given so little treatment that it didn’t dig deep enough to matter.

I really liked the establishment of secondary characters in this – Edie’s friends Hannah and Nick, her sister Meg and father (and a tragedy in her family’s past was a sharp, bitter exploration well done) … but again; these characters felt like they fell by the wayside. Her depressive friend Nick, in particular, I was hoping to get a fuller back-story and maybe some sort of resolution? There’s also an older neighbour that Edie befriends who I thought would add another dimension to the plot – but that also went nowhere, and fell away too easily.

I will also say that something else I love about Mhairi’s books is how self-fulfilled her female characters are, and how much of a focus is on their personal and professional happiness. Often, in fact, they need to find meaning in their work life to have happiness in their romantic one – and that’s so true of life, and something I commend in all her books. But in ‘Who’s That Girl?’ I struggled to see why Edie liked her job so much … given that her being bullied is so poignantly portrayed, and this job ghost-writing Elliot’s memoir is a spur-of-the-moment, not-her-usual gig. I didn’t really know why Edie liked her job, basically. Which is a problem, when it becomes a big part of how the ending pans out.

Speaking of – THAT ENDING! I literally could have screamed “that’s it?!??” when I saw those last words. I think – in harking back to the ‘Notting Hill’ comparison – I was waiting for my big Horse and Hound bit, and a culmination in a similarly big declaration scene – like that of the press conference in that film too. Basically – I was waiting for a more movie romance ending with a bang, but I guess what Mhairi had been trying to establish was that Edie and Elliot’s romance is grounded in reality (because at the end of the day, he is just a normal bloke) and there’s an appropriately quiet ending to reflect that. So yeah, bit of a fizzer for me.

Also –one of my favourite scenes to make me blubber in ‘Notting Hill’ is that final image of Hugh Grant and a pregnant Julia Roberts on the park bench ("To June who Loved this garden ... from Joseph, who always sat beside her") and I just love the domesticity of that moment, *even* as she’s still a big film star, they’ve clearly made it work. And I guess with ‘Who’s That Girl?’ I would have appreciated a few moments exploring that domesticity. What’s it actually like, dating a film star? How do you cope? Do bizarre things just become the new normal? Yeah. I think I’d been hoping that this book took that momentary fave scene from ‘Notting Hill’ and based the story around that image a bit more. More fool me for presuming where the story would go, but there you go.  

Overall – I did like this book, but I didn’t LOVE and ADORE it like I am the others of hers, so far. I still wanted to rush to the end, I laughed and swooned … but maybe not quite as hard as previously.


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