Maggie O’Farrell stirred many of my emotions with her debut, After You’d Gone, a heart breaking story about love and bereavement. She hit the spot exactly with her tale of obsession, jealousy and betrayal in her second novel, My Lover’s Lover. Her fourth, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was the next one I read, and fell short for me, partly due to the fact that I had read it straight after The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a near perfect and thoroughly satisfying read. I revisited Maggie a few years later, picking up her third novel and the one I had missed out, The Distance Between Us.
After reading books, I like to check out the reviews on Amazon to see what other readers thought, and I always come to the same conclusion – reading is so subjective. The reviews of The Distance Between Us ranged from declaring it was the best thing O’Farrell had ever written, to putting it on a par with her debut, to stating she had let us all down with a bit of a stinker. For me, The Distance Between Us was slightly disappointing. I say slightly, because my expectations were not great to begin with. This simply being because I knew what was coming from what I remembered of her other books. Her themes always centre around a tragic event, secrets and, the big one, internalising emotions. I think you have to be in a certain state of mind to appreciate these kinds of themes and this kind of writing, and once you step out of this, O’Farrell’s stories can be dull and frustrating. For example, I got a lot from My Lover’s Lover partly because it tapped into my feelings at the time of sexual possession and jealousy, and my probable unhealthy curiosity about what and who went before me. I identified with characters, I sympathised with characters, I recognised situations – in short I thought it was great. And although I am sure there were other factors that affected how I felt about the book, looking back, I know I was in the perfect mood for that particular story and style.
In contrast, The Distance Between Us felt a bit too distance for me. While the plot was interesting and perfectly acceptable (“The Distance Between Us is a novel about parallel lives, displaced identities and the bond between sisters. Above all, it’s a love story about two people who have never met”), the characters lacked warmth and depth, and therefore, despite events, did not invoke much sympathy from me. The story was told in a very fragmented way, jumping between time and place and different characters’ individual stories, and while this is not unusual for Maggie O’Farrell and is, in fact, one of her most favourable distinguishing narrative/structural techniques, this time I felt it to be too much, and its overuse contributed to the detachment I felt. I never really got my teeth into anything and there were little strands of stories that frankly could plausibly have been left out and replaced with more detail in the main story. There were moments when I felt I wanted to find out what happened next, but then I thought do I really care? The love between the two central characters, Stella and Jake, did not have any kind of intensity, which left it flat and unbelievable, and while the relationship between Stella and her sister Nina showed more complexity, there didn’t seem to be much consistency between the younger versions of the sisters and the older ones.
However, there was one aspect of the book that made me sit up with interest. The part of the story that touched me most was Nina’s illness. This stirred my curiosity because of my own similar experiences; and, because it was mostly told from a child’s point of view, thereby not delving too deep into it and attempting to explain it, I found it sufficiently profound. Yet, even this lacked that something extra to warm me to the characters and the story as a whole.
It is clear that Maggie O’Farrell is a talented writer who can entertain and move readers with her stories of life and love. Yet life is such that what appeals one day may not appeal the next. It is important that the books you read make you feel deeply, and the factors that help you do this vary greatly from person to person. The atmosphere that the book and the individual reader create together is always unique. I feel that, in a sense, each time a book is picked up by someone it is like the first time it is being read because the world that is being created is never quite the same as the one gone before. This is the very thing that excites me about books, especially fiction. Reading is such a personal thing that the way you think and feel about a book is susceptible to subtle changes in mood, different expectations, the passing of time and many other variables. Some books are so ‘bad’ or so not right for a particular reader that the atmosphere created is hardly anything at all. I wouldn’t go so far as to class The Distance Between Us in this category for me, but it certainly lacked that something special to get my juices flowing.