(The podcast version of this review is below and short video at bottom of the page. You can find the links to listen on Apple, Spotify, Amazon at the top and bottom of this page - you can also search on your usual podcast platforms.)
It's one thing to find out your partner has shared your secret with someone else - it's something else when they put it on screen for the whole world.
If someone can do that - what else are they capable of?
That is one of the questions that drives the action in the latest chart topper from Mhairi McFarlane.
I have been a slightly embarrassing fanboy cheerleader of Mhairi McFarlane’s fiction since her debut You Had Me at Hello in 2012. She was generous enough to chat to me for a previous podcast and I was trying to find the original correspondence for that conversation but all I could find was a gushing message I’d sent after reading and loving her second novel - Here’s Looking at You.
So. Yes. She is on the list of authors that when their new book is released I need to put aside a day or two as once I open the front cover not much will get done until I’ve turned the last page.
So did Between Us live up to my great expectations?
Secondary English teacher Roisin Walters is somewhat of a curiosity at her school - not just because of her burgundy hair - but also because her long term boyfriend is a famous TV writer with a Line of Duty type smash hit behind him and a much hyped risque new show on the way. He will be joining her and four of their best friends at a country mansion for a weekend party to celebrate one of their group’s birthday AND see the premiere of this new show.
In the film version - and due to McFarlane’s crisp descriptions I find it impossible to not picture it as if filmed - all of this would be done over the opening credits with a catchy and cool soundtrack.
(For what it’s worth I’d cast Holliday Grainger as Roisin.)
What genre do we normally get at country mansions with a group of friends or family? A whodunnit. In that vein we get a healthy serving of clues as to possible cracks in different relationships as dinner is prepared. Once drinks and food are served we rattle through a quick sequence of events that set up the main storylines, headlined by: Why did Roisin’s boyfriend take a secret part of her life and put it on screen?
Roisin must deal with her issues of trust as she plays detective delving into her and her boyfriend’s past and what’s happened in their relationship. At the same time, her mum needs her help at the family pub in the country and the threads of family memories are pulled along with pints and at times it’s not clear which is the most bitter. When the pub needs a positive spin for the village fete, there is attractive assistance at hand from Matt - the recently self exiled member of their friendship group - who has secrets of his own …
Who can Roisin really trust and count on as she pieces together the clues and uncovers something she wasn’t expecting?
We also get a thriller-ish mystery element to the tale as Roisin is dogged in wanting to get to the truth, even if she might uncover darker secrets than she imagined.
There’s an accepted ingredient list for stories set in the notional genre “rom-com” that allow a writer to play around in the kitchen trying out different combinations and flavours whilst making sure to give you a taste of what you want. McFarlane is now an expert chef and it’s like she’s mastered the Ready, Steady ,Cook format of taking a basic counter of ingredients and whipping up a gourmet delight.
One female protagonist whose relationship status is about to get a jolt.
One attractive but questionable love interest.
A punnet of witty and winsome friends.
A garnish of contrasting locations.
But many people try following a recipe and you often end up feeling that something’s missing or the flavours are off. McFarlane’s skill is her flair for creating flawed but loveable characters that you want to spend time with and care about. And she really hits the spot with the com part of the rom-com. Sharp barbs are traded and gags are so well crafted that I’m often glad I don’t read in public due to the proper guffaws this book elicits.
Between Us navigates sensitively but candidly through a raft of issues and themes from gaslighting and fidelity, to mental health and female solidarity, as well as how we decide what in our lives is private and public. It also revisits a theme of McFarlane’s work - grief. Not just for people we lose, but for parts of our life we lose or the idea we had of others. Letting go can be hard, taking the next step in moving on is often harder. But Between Us is also a tremendously hopeful story with characters confronting and dealing with the messy complicated aspects of life and that makes finishing the final page and leaving them behind a little easier.
My biscuit rating for Between Us is: Leibniz milk chocolate.
A welcome treat that you know will deliver in every area and make you feel better.
Also, they go well with your tea when you start reading this during the day, but also with the wine you swap to later when you still haven’t put the book down.