It took me around six hours to read Jenny Colgan’s easy and comforting 500 Miles From You, a split Scotland/England story that I’m counting as my global travel for this year of lockdowns and quarantine.
Lissa Westcott is a “nurse practitioner liaison” in London. One day, returning from a home call, she witnesses the murder of a young man, Kai, the nephew of a former lover. The perpetrator is caught immediately, but Lissa is emotionally devastated. Her intervention, however, leads to the young man’s organs being donated, including a heart to a young girl in a small town in Scotland called Kirrinfief. . . where Cormac MacPherson, former army medic and now also a nurse practitioner liaison, lives and works, caring for the girl who receives Kai’s heart. An arrangement is made for Cormac to take over Lissa’s work for a season, while she takes over his. They’re required to communicate regularly over email to talk about patients (though this isn’t an epistolary novel) and eventually fall in something. . . love might be a stretch considering they don’t meet until the end of the book.
Lissa is supposed to recover in Scotland but honestly, I felt I got healed a little too, of the general malaise of the spirit I’ve acquired during this year. According to the author bio, Colgan is a joint resident of London and Scotland but her adoration is almost entirely for Scotland in this book. Colgan isn’t a blind idealist – she acknowledges, via Cormac’s perspective that
There was deprivation in the Highlands, of course. . . . And then there were the usual ravages of all economies: drink, of course; horse racing; family breakdown. But there were always the hills, the mountains, the lochs, and the trees. The was work, even if it wasn’t always the best paid. The schools still had plenty of outdoor space to play. You could still cycle your bike into the village and feel most people knew who you were. . . . that was one of the best things Cormac knew.
In a way, the admittance of the flaws helps to make it seem like Kirrinfief might actually be based on a real place – and I really want it to be.
As with the only other Colgan book I’ve read, Where Have All The Boys Gone?, the secondary characters are excellent (the main characters of the two prior Scottish Bookshop books appear throughout – but the book absolutely reads like a solid standalone), the patients and their cases are memorable, and while this book isn’t as sharply humorous as WHATBG, it is stupendously easy to read. Colgan’s writing style is light without being silly and unobtrusive, and without being sparse. The perspective is alternating third person, of both Lissa and Cormac, but there is a strong yet friendly overall narrating voice that sounds like it has to be Colgan, if a fictional version. She drops in on occasion to note things such as:
It is a fact—sad but true—but please, don’t ever let it put you off visiting our beautiful country; we would be so happy to see you, I promise. Nonetheless it remains a fairly hard-wired fact that if you want to plant a visit to Scotland, or a wedding, or a barbecue, the mere fact of planning it is an act of hubris that upsets the weather gods of Scotland.
My one real quibble was that I didn’t like Lissa much at the beginning. When she first goes to Scotland, she’s a bit unsympathetic – trauma aside. She deliberately, regularly, ignores all the information Cormac tries to give her about his patients, which seems like, if not malpractice, than ethically problematic if one imagines medical professionals should use all the resources at their disposal to care for people. Her only reason for this seems to be that she finds his professionalism irritating. I also found her initial unwillingness to engage with the affable, chatty townspeople and her plight at having no food app delivery service in the area scoff-worthy. What I’d give to be able to see people in the flesh again and simply talk in a beautiful place, and then go get my own damn food! But this might have bothered me less if it wasn’t for the current circumstances of the world. As they are, the joke of the woes of a city girl in the country fell rather flat.
It’d be a stretch to call 500 Miles From You a love story. Cormac and Lissa have one conversation throughout the whole book in person, and all their other communication is via texts and emails about as long as my thumb. But I have hope for them together. They have a lot in common in experience and a mutual appreciation for the better parts of each other’s worlds.
Wherever you find yourself this summer, 500 Miles From You is an excellent summer reading choice.
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