Bringing Worlds Together

Book review of “The Distance Between Us” by Maggie O’Farrell.

distance between usJake’s single mother gave birth to him, and raised him in Hong Kong. In 1993, Jake was caught in the Chinese New Year’s crush, resulting in an almost fatal injury for the girl he was dating. In London, at the same time, Stella thinks she’s just seen someone from her troubled past who could reveal her dark secret. Not long after these two events, both Stella and Jake find themselves in a fancy B&B in Kildoune, just outside Inverness, Scotland. There, Jake is looking to find answers about his mother’s past as well as his father, but Stella only wants to hide away from hers. Their discovery of each other, along with their parallel journeys of self-discovery is the basis of Maggie O’Farrell’s third novel.

Despite how simple this plot summary may seem the story here is somewhat complex, as it toggles between the stories of these two characters, as well as between the present and the past. Even so, this isn’t a difficult read, as one thing O’Farrell shines at is making the complex seem simple. Obviously, with two young people as the main protagonists, there’s going to be some kind of chemistry. However, O’Farrell raises this above the “chick-lit” genre by including several additional elements. For instance, there is Stella’s sister Nina, who helps advance the story through her communications with Stella, thereby avoiding some of the possible boring back-story descriptions. Nina also fills in some of Stella’s historical and motivational gaps with things like reminding Stella of previous behavior patterns she should avoid repeating.

In addition, O’Farrell’s use of giving us pieces of the story from different angles and periods, allows us to piece together the story ourselves, almost as if this was a mystery novel. In this way, by the time we reach the end, we feel this is something complete and whole, without ever reaching a clichéd or trite ending. This also gives O’Farrell the ability to round out her main characters, so that they feel very three dimensional as they develop throughout the action. The story also finishes with a typical O’Farrell closure that is open-ended, leaving the reader to imagine what will become of these characters after we turn the last page, which is far preferable than having things too carefully tied up. Despite all this praise, this book isn’t perfect. One problem is that although we thoroughly understand why Jake goes to Kildoune, the motivational incident that causes Stella to leave London is slightly too obscure. Another difficulty is that despite Stella’s childish running away, her character seems far more mature than Jake seems, and almost seems a touch too young to have Stella be interested in romantically.

However, other than these two small points, the book flows beautifully, making it a relatively quick read. In addition, because of the empathy O’Farrell evokes in her characters, readers will find it a page-turner. O’Farrell’s prose is simply lovely without being the least bit flowery. For instance, our introduction to Jake on the first page with, “He wakes to find himself splayed like a starfish across the bed, his mind running full tilt. On the other side of the room, the fan turns towards him then turns away, as if offended.” Then, we meet Stella in the next chapter with, “The bus isn’t coming. Stella pulls her scarf closer around her throat and stands on tiptoe to gaze down the line of traffic.” Already this gives us solid insights into how very different these people are, and how diverse both their locations and situations are.

With this third novel, faithful O’Farrell readers will see how her style has developed slowly. Although this is more enjoyable than “After You’d Gone,” to be honest, her second work, “My Lover’s Lover” is actually a touch more original than this, and is arguably the best of the three. Even so, O’Farrell really came into her own with her fourth novel “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lenox,” which she’s followed with two other novels of equal success. While O’Farrell generally appeals more to women then to men, this is hardly “chick-lit.” Primarily, it is a very interesting story. The plot is well developed and the characters are both interesting and sympathetic. Overall, this book deserves four and a half out of five stars and comes well recommend.


“The Distance Between Us” by Maggie O’Farrell is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), the website, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (A version of this review originally appeared on the {now defunct} content site Helium)

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