Friday, February 13, 2015

The Year She Left by Kerry Kelly

One challenge I have found in reading more recently published books (like in the last 10-15 years or so) is that a lot of the ones that feature young-ish characters and deal with relationships can be kind of...fluffy, for lack of a better term. They tend to fall under the unfortunate label of "chick lit". So it is always a lovely surprise when that doesn't happen.

Another issue - and this is a #champagneproblem - is for someone who has been in a happy relationship for over a decade, it is sometimes a struggle to relate to characters who are absorbed by dating drama and the woes of single life.

This novel is good. It avoids these pitfalls nicely with well-drawn, flawed but likable characters and a realistic but not too dull plot. The author manages to artfully capture the challenge of modern adulthood without becoming maudlin or falling into romcom traps. It is, above all, believable and real.

The story follows two people in their early 30s who have just left long-term relationships: Kate, who asks her boyfriend to leave after coming to the slow realization that things aren't working; and Stuart, whose fiancee writes him a Dear John letter and then hides in the shadows to watch him read it. At the start, these two characters don't know each other, and the book is divided between them as they both struggle to cope with the consequences of the break ups - Kate tries to find something to occupy her time, and Stuart basically becomes a hot mess.

Eventually the two do meet, but that is not what the book is about. Honestly I'm not sure I could tell you what this book is about. I will say I was pleasantly surprised by how the author twice sidesteps our expectations based on the title and the trajectory of the narrative. It is clear that she has nothing but contempt for familiar romantic tropes, and I love it. The characters are buoyed by a ragtag support network of interesting but not too silly friends and relatives.

The city does not play a huge part in the story but there are some Toronto spots that are name-checked, most notably the Local. There is also an air of Canadian-ness to it; it's a Manhattan story but softer somehow.

I found a couple parts to be a bit on the nose: any long monologue where a character explains what happiness is or what life is about is hard to handle, and I believe there are three in this book. But otherwise it is a quick, pleasant, and surprisingly emotional read from a very promising author.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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