A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes a song can capture a whole era—a slice of your life recreated whenever you hear that opening riff. The movie The Breakfast Club made the song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)" so indelibly iconic as the theme song for high school archetypes that when I saw the title of this book—and immediately got the song in my head—I wondered if it would be able to live up to the nostalgia it would trigger. Rest assured, it does.
Like The Breakfast Club, Mhairi McFarlane’s glorious, hilarious heartbreaker of a story begins with high school students pushed together by circumstances out of their control, vividly aware of their places in the social hierarchy, baffled and delighted by their mutual attraction. Their strictly-in-secret love story is sweet, innocent and almost breathless in its sweaty-palmed elation.
And then the film reel cuts out and the story picks up twelve years later.
Our heroine, Georgina Horspool, never left her native Sheffield. Never achieved her dream of becoming an important writer. Never quite found her niche at all, in fact, and has the rug of her unsatisfying life doubly pulled out from under her in just one night. First, she’s fired from her (miserable) waitressing job. Then she finds her (egocentric cad of a) boyfriend in bed with his assistant. Desperate for any opportunity that’ll keep her from being the object of pity (again) at the family’s weekly brunch, she jumps at the chance to tend bar for a private event at a new pub. It goes well, she’s offered a job and she’s eager to accept—but then she learns that the job means working with Lucas McCarthy who is, of course, the boy she loved a decade-plus ago and lost somewhere along the way.
So far, so expected. McFarlane’s writing is funny and charming enough to keep her readers engaged, but the beats in the first part will feel familiar as the story shifts from The Breakfast Club to Bridget Jones’s Diary. Still, as the story progresses, the madcap humor starts to mingle with deeper emotions. Georgina is self-aware in a way that Bridget never managed. Her relationships with her friends and family delve below the surface, uncovering real emotions and deep-seated issues. When she talks about discovering a beloved parent’s infidelity, there’s no punch line payoff. It feels real and visceral. When her dreadful ex tries to win her back, it’s not funny—it’s an awful ordeal that Georgina correctly identifies as manipulative and bullying. And readers should be aware that this novel contains a graphic description of sexual assault that could be triggering to some individuals. It is devastating and unflinchingly honest, but it is not gratuitous. Understanding the details of what occurred is pivotal to understanding the plot and characters.
Any romance reader will be able to peg that Lucas and Georgina are made for each other, but they have to put in some real work—on both sides—before they’re emotionally ready for happily ever after. McFarlane doesn’t skimp on sly humor or wacky characters, but no plot point has an easy fix and no character feels two-dimensional. Even the broadest personalities are loving, or loyal or cruel in tactile and vivid ways. And as the book progresses, you realize how much depth and truth there was to the characters and the story all along.