When Roisin and Joe join their friends for a weekend at a country house, it’s a triple celebration—a birthday, an engagement, and the launch of Joe’s shiny new TV show. But as the weekend unfolds, tensions come to light in the group and Roisin begins to question her own relationship. And as they watch the first episode of Joe’s drama, she realizes that the private things she told him—which should have stayed between them—are right there on the screen.
It isn’t just her relationship with Joe that Roisin begins to question. She fears for the group itself. This is a 10-year friend group, that meet regularly throughout the year, with regular texting about anything and everything happening within the group. During the weekend, however, a number of aspects about the various relationships within the group, and the group as a whole, begin to shift. And this is one of the things I love most about McFarlane’s writing: it’s never just about the main couple. The friend groups generally are made up of well-rounded characters I enjoy spending time with, warts and all. It’s also common for a McFarlane book to begin with a character who is struggling in some way with an existing relationship, and that is true here as well.
Much of this review – like the book itself – focuses on Roisin’s relationship with Joe because his actions drive the plot of the book. But he is not the romantic lead of the story. McFarlane explores what it means to be a family (biological and found), betrayal and “cheating” throughout the book. The most important one, of course, is Joe’s appropriating something shared in private for commercial gain, and then springing it on Roisin in public with no warning. The resulting gaslighting that Joe engages in throughout the story to “explain away” Roisin’s concerns and in defense of his own actions feel very real and authentic.
“You’ve been in a threatening mood all weekend, Roisin. Barely said a word after the show yesterday. . . I’m not stupid. What do you want to say to me?”
Claiming to know she was upset, and taking the piss out of her, didn’t exactly match up. A simple “are you okay?” would’ve done. Joe was battle ready. . . She’d not seen him wrongfooted or concerned, whatsoever. He’d gone straight into damage-limitation, get-rid-of-her-with-a-glib apology mode. It didn’t bother him enough to check his conscience. It didn’t apparently occur to him to check it.
The good news is that Roisin models pretty healthy behavior in reaction to Joe’s choices. But there are other instances of betrayal to be dealt with, other characters throughout the book: everything from parents who make mistakes with their children and its resulting trauma, to partners who literally cheat, and friends who know but don’t share that knowledge. McFarlane has bitten off a fair bit of angst to manage and does so quite well.
As is typical of her other books, McFarlane relies on humor to help offset some of the angst, as well as liberal use of the local language/slang which I adore (in this case, British English):
The van, which Gina had won in a raffle last year, had been christened Ethelred the Unready. Given the running costs, the competition organizers had cheek calling it a prize rather than an adoption. . . Gina, both bosomy and slight, was in a fluttery spring-summer yellow dress and blush ballet slippers . . . she looked absolutely nothing like someone about to manhandle a tin bin with a steering wheel the size of a bicycle tire, for an eighty-mile distance. Yet there was no safer or more ballsy driver.
“Sadly, those films are rated R, Amir, so not only is it not allowed (to be shown in Roisin’s English Lit classroom), but I’m also sure you’ve not seen them.” To which Roisin’s Year 10 student replies, “I totally didn’t see them because my auntie doesn’t have them all on Blu-Ray, Miss.”
“Sometimes, in dating, I feel like I ace the interview because I don’t really want the job,” Matt said.
I did read an arc version of this book and was startled by one glaring issue that surely will be resolved in the published book. There are references to Roisin and Joe as long-time (10-years), live-in partners, as well as references to mothers-in-law and divorce. I don’t think any of the substantive conversations or plot points of the book would be impacted significantly by whether or not Joe and Roisin are actually married (and for the record, Roisin does not engage romantically with her eventual love interest until she is well done with Joe), but it will be far less confusing to read once corrected. I’m guessing Roisin and Joe will NOT be married in the final book, because this is a romance, and Roisin does end up with an HEA, and making that feel ok while waiting for a divorce to become final is probably too awkward for a romance to pull off no matter how realistic it might be in real life, even in 2023. But the confusion did impact my enjoyment of the story, as I kept going back and forth in the text to figure out what I kept missing, until I remembered I was reading an unfinished work.
Having complimented the humor (and hoping the examples of above translate out of context, because I did laugh out loud many times while reading, including at all three of these instances), I have one more quibble with the writing that I hope will be polished away in the final manuscript. There were several places where the humor came off a bit forced, as though the author were trying too hard to be funny. That dropped the review out of A territory for me.
Between Us is likely to be problematic for romance readers who want a great deal of page count attention on the “main couple” and their romantic reactions to one another. But if you can handle a romance that spends most of its time on the issues of its main character, you’ve got a solid read ahead of you. As already mentioned, McFarlane spends a majority of this book exploring what makes for successful relationships generally, how to tell whether one has one or not, and what a reasonable course of action might be if one determines they do not. But it won’t be difficult to figure out the better partner for Roisin, either, as events unfold. There are many great words to be enjoyed here. But actions speak louder than words, as far the romance is concerned in this book.
by Katherine Lynne
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Hugs to you and to your mom.
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