by Mhairi McFarlane
She thought seeing James again at work was a taunt from God, but what if it was a useful nudge from Him Above? Go. Look upon this creature and realise that really, him and his people aren’t all that.
It was authentically terrifying to think you could do so much damage to another human being, and then mentally store it away in the attic. Imagine if he’d never met her again? If he ever had kids, they’d have a Don’t Be Mean talk from him that’d involve a PowerPoint presentation.
Here’s Looking at You, is another gem by Mhairi McFarlane. Anna is a beautiful, successful, intelligent, kind, and funny history professor who is still living her life in the shadow of her miserable experience as a fat and ugly teenager who was unmercifully tormented and bullied by her peers. Her lowest point which has haunted her for years is when the golden boy she had a crush on took a leading role in her Carrie-like humiliation in front of the whole school. The book takes off when she meets him again, begins working with him professionally and he doesn’t recognize her. The book is told from both Anna’s and James’s points of view as per the two quotes above..
What made this book stand out from the typical ugly duckling story is that although James is certainly handsome, he is no prince. We know from Anna’s flashback that he was a shallow jerk as a teenager and although he has matured, he has continued to value the wrong things in life. He has a lot of changing and growing yet to do before he is worthy of being the “hero” in this story. Yet, we know from his voice and the comparison to his spoiled cold wife and his predator-like best friend that he has a good heart. I was very disappointed in him at one point and wondered how he was ever going to redeem himself in Anna’s eyes and my eyes. I credit the author for rescuing the character, not in one grand gesture, but a series of decisions and self-revelations. And a heck of a telling off courtesy of Anna. Please forgive Anna’s language here, but she is really mad. It’s not typical.
‘I don’t care if you’ve changed or not. Because I’ve changed. Because I don’t let superficial dickheads get to me anymore.’ James grimaced. ‘That’s harsh, Anna.’ She was finally riled. She felt the kind of raging hurt that swelled behind the chest wall and travelled up the throat and out of the mouth in the form of ugly words. ‘That’s harsh?! Try five years of daily hell topped with a public demonstration that a whole school-full of people hate you, James…Every night I poured it all into my diary, great screeds of misery. I promised myself that one day I would get away. That the time would come when I’d never have to see any of you fuckers again. And by being friends with you, I’m betraying that girl. That’s why I don’t want to be friends. You didn’t want to be friends back then. But you do now, now that the very sight of me isn’t an embarrassment. Well, I don’t want to know you. What did you call that, “harsh”? Why don’t you try to pick up the shattered pieces of your life and limp on?’
That’s just a snippet. **Spoiler**At the end of her tirade, James finally realizes the extent of her damaged childhood and the strong character she had to have to bounce back from it. Anna herself is finally cleansed of the last vestiges. **end spoiler**
Mhairi’s characterizations of all the players are detailed, layered, and complex. I’ve read three books by Ms McFarlane now and all have been different; not fitting the same template that similar authors seem to sometimes get stuck in. Some of the reviews have noted the similarities between this novel and Pride and Prejudice. Although the plot is different, there are some parallels in the characters. I can see that maybe it is a homage to that classic novel, or the author just having some fun. Funny, interesting, briskly paced, and heart-tugging, I was “all in” every page of the way. **5 stars out of 5**
January 31, 2020