By Mhairi McFarlane
In chapter 5, our heroine, Harriet, returns her boyfriend Jon’s engagement ring the same night he tries to trap her by proposing in front of his obnoxious family. To avoid humiliating him, and to avert an ugly scene, she accepts. A couple of hours later, when finally alone with him she returns the ring and she gives him what for. Decisively and with no fooling around.
She moved swiftly across the room, sliding the ring from her finger and placing it on a French chest of drawers, then turned and folded her arms. Jon, seeing this, looked unperturbed…. ‘Jon,’ Harriet said, in a voice so low and grim, it didn’t sound like her own. ‘What the hell did you do that for?…
You thought once I was permitted to plan a party, all my silly little feminine objections would magically fly away? It was one of those little lady ideas that don’t really matter in real actual life?’ ‘Come on, Hats, I’d never think your opinion doesn’t matter, you know that. You’re being a bit mischievous here,’ Jon said, and she tried not to scream. ‘I suppose I thought… As ridiculous as it sounds, I thought no harm in asking…. She took a deep breath into her lungs. ‘I don’t want to be with you anymore. This is over, Jon.’ …
She hard-gulped, as the tears surged up. ‘I’d hardly say this and not mean it, to punish you. That would be vile.’ ‘Then why say it now?’ Harriet said, thickly: ‘You’ve kind of forced the issue tonight.’ ‘So you weren’t happy before I proposed?’ Deep breath. Say it. ‘No.’ Jon said: ‘Really?’ in a broken voice, which was a small stab to her heart. ‘Yes.’
I almost cheered out loud. It is a not uncommon tactic for an author to put her readers through the mill with a mushy hearted clueless heroine in order to stir up sympathy, tension, anticipation, suspense, and to make the inevitable break even more dramatic (so she can find her REAL love interest or provide a cathartic climax). In many comedic romances, the heroine would have allowed herself to be won over, given him another chance, caved in to pressure and argument, or delayed and delayed the painful confrontation. Nope. Harriet was a heroine I could really get behind, not just root for in spite of her weaknesses and bad decisions. She never waivers, despite some entertaining confrontations with annoying Jon and his awful mother. So this got off to a great start, and in the ups and downs of Harriet’s adventures going forward, the novel never let me down.
Luckily, thanks to one of her friends who is a realtor, she is able to get out from under Jon’s roof almost immediately and finds a house to share with a guy who seems nice in a perfect house in a nice neighborhood. She is a wedding photographer and to her dismay, it turns out her landlord and housemate is a groom who famously left his bride at the altar at one of her weddings. When Jon shows up at their house and ends up punching him, both of them start to view each other with suspicion and trepidation.
Oh, hah hah. We all know I’ve got the section of my Wikipedia subheaded Controversy covered. If the waiter comes while I’m in the gents, I’ll have an espresso, thanks.’ Timely call of the bladder, Harriet thought. ‘Notice that our Calvin assumes he’ll have a Wikipedia,’ Sam said, once Cal had gone, and Harriet properly laughed this time.
‘In fairness here, I should tell you he’s not that guy.’ ‘What guy?’ ‘The one who traumatised a woman for life, in public.’ ‘Ah.’ Harriet didn’t know what to say and hesitated. ‘He kind of is that guy though?’ ‘Technically yes, he IS that guy. But he’s not that kind of guy.’ Harriet felt this might be an argument of creeps the world over. Yes I Did The Thing But I’m Not Defined By The Thing, Like Those Other Guys Who Also Did The Thing. ‘The unfortunate thing is, he’s a hopeless romantic…
While Harriet is working through her relationship with Cal, and dealing with Jon’s persistent almost-stalking, she meets a former boyfriend at another wedding she is working. Everyone loves this charmer but behind closed doors, he is a gaslighter, controller, and an emotional abuser. “Uh Oh,” I thought, “Here’s where we have a long flashback where we are taken through the heroine’s ordeal with a monster in excruciating detail in which she ignores ALL of the red flags.” But no. Once again Mhairi McFarlane doesn’t take the well-traveled route. When Harriet sees herself in his fiance’s sparkly on the outside but sad behind the eyes behavior, she writes her a letter telling her and the reader her story. This decision by the author keeps the past in the past and the reader is not only spared too much anxiety and frustration with the heroine but keeps the novel in the present and moving forward.
You think you’re going to pen her a letter saying your fiancé is a monster, and she’s going to write back first class and say aw thanks for the heads-up, doll, consider him binned?”…
‘Who stops these men? How do we stop them? Scott never hit me, he never physically attacked me or hurt me in any way where I can point to a scar. But he demolished me….
If I leave another woman to suffer Scott Dyer because I’m frightened of intervening, then nothing has really changed. If I don’t do it, Lorna, then I’m still scared of him. That’s just a fact.’
And she does it because she believes women should help other women. One of the themes of this novel is the importance and power of female friendship and advocacy.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Harriet is subjected to all kinds of havoc in which not only her business and reputation are threatened, but also some of her friendships. Things get pretty bad but I hope it won’t be a spoiler to say, “Fear Not!” Some new friendships are made and we are treated to a very satisfactory girl-power-variety takedown.
If there was a special place in hell reserved for women who didn’t help other women, perhaps there were special rewards for those who did. Harriet did not feel alone anymore. They couldn’t have achieved this without each other, they couldn’t have vanquished this man, except as a team.
As events marched towards the climax, I noticed my heart was actually thumping hard in my chest. No, I wasn’t having a heart attack, thank God. The book was just that gripping right there.
There is a nice romance that provides a hopeful happy ending for our heroine, but it is very much secondary to the drama of Harriet’s journey to understand her actions (both good and bad) and achieve emotional closure. I don’t think Mhairi McFarlane is capable of writing a book that does not have plenty of humor interwoven naturally throughout serious situations and conversations as well as more lighthearted moments. As well as thoughtful insights and character arcs. This one is in my top 5 by one of my top 5 favorite authors. Definitely 5 stars.
P.S. One quibble. The title made no sense. She was not mad about anyone. That is not what this book is about. She was upset at some people and had plenty of people mad, even enraged, at her. But not about her.
April 6, 2022