Desert Isle Keeper
Just Last Night
The publisher’s blurb for Just Last Night is extremely vague in describing the contents of what is a captivating and heartfelt tale about grief and how we deal with the inevitable secrets that are revealed when a loved one dies. As per AAR policy, I have given an overview of the first third of the book, without revealing any crucial information that would spoil the story. Those not wanting even those scant details should take the letter grade as my endorsement and stop reading here.
They’ve known each other forever. Ed, Eve, Justin and Susie met during their early teens and are still the best of friends in their thirties. It’s not unusual for them to gather in a pub of an evening to play games and get a bit tipsy but it is unheard of for the same night to go from bad to heartbreaking. That’s exactly what happens when Ed, Eve’s not-so-secret crush, gets engaged to Hester in a big romantic scene while they are all at the bar, and at night’s end Susie gets hit by a car while walking home.
Susie’s family struggles to deal with the aftermath. Her estranged brother Finlay lives in America, and plans to return to Nottingham as soon as possible but asks that Eve begin planning the funeral since his father has Alzheimer’s and is in no condition to do so. Trying to respect and represent who Susie was in a ceremony celebrating her life while also dealing with the reality of Susie’s death is extremely hard for Eve. It’s equally hard to have to work with Ed, who insists on being part of the preparations. While they are ironing out the details of the requiem, and sharing remembrances of Susie, they have an epiphany. Susie had a secretive side and a very bad relationship with her brother; realizing Finlay will now have access to all his sister’s possessions, the two determine to clean Susie’s flat before he arrives and abscond with anything Susie wouldn’t have wanted him to see. Which is how Eve winds up carrying home a box of diaries and letters Susie had had sitting in her wardrobe. Eve had no plans to read any of it – until a stray note slips from an envelope and she sees her name. What she finds inside hurts, horrifies and enrages her, but with the commemoration taking place the next day she has no choice but to pretend that nothing has changed.
Of course, that is easier said than done and the letter will prove to be a catalyst, sending Eve on an unexpected journey to find answers to questions she never knew she needed to ask, and providing her with the possibility of a future brighter than any she’d ever dared to imagine.
Ms. McFarlane excels at writing charming, endearing novels which resonate with genuine, rich emotion. Here she perfectly captures the joy and angst of deep friendships and the dangers of all the things we leave unsaid between ourselves and those we are closest to. Eve thought Susie shared everything with her and realizing that Susie had kept one very big secret is shocking and painful for her. Eve had also thought she’d done an excellent job of hiding her ove for Ed, and learning that Ed, Susie and Justin all knew about it and yet none of them ever spoke of it leaves her both embarrassed and pensive. Embarrassed because she feels she’s made a bit of a spectacle of herself but also because it forces her to really think about what this close group of mates never discusses with each other and why.
While she’s pondering that rather weighty question, she finds herself renewing her relationships with Finlay and his and Susie’s father, Ian. Finlay has been forced to extend his stay in England to deal with his father’s worsening illness, and spending time with them proves to be an eye-opening experience for Eve. Susie’s family, with their beautiful, well-maintained home and carefree, welcoming manner had always seemed perfect to her. She knew something had happened to drive a wedge between Finlay and the rest of the clan but had no idea just how dysfunctional everything about that estrangement was.
It also forces Eve to view Susie as a fully realized human being and resist the urge to either demonize her friend, who is no longer there to provide answers to questions raised by her past behaviors, or to sanctify Susie, attempting to sugarcoat every act the all too fallible Susie performed in order to provide a perfect past for her flawed friend. This is a surprisingly touching and lovely experience to read about, and I was utterly delighted with how the author infuses this very real grieving process with wit and humor. I also loved how Susie remains an active character throughout the novel, with everyone talking and thinking about what she would do or say in certain situations.
How hard Eve, Ed and Justin have to work to reframe their interactions with Susie no longer being a part of their group is satisfyingly realistic. Adding stress to the tentative reestablishment of their dynamic is Ed’s fiancé. Hester feels Ed is spending too much time reminiscing with his friends about their past escapades with Susie and too little time focused on the future they should be planning as an engaged couple. Hester lets that be known as early as the funeral and I found it perfect that this story of friendship dealt with not just the loss of a cohort but how adding significant others can change the balance of these relationships.
A psychologist, Finlay helps Eve work through a lot of her emotional baggage via conversations over the wine, coffees and dinners they have while managing Ian’s care. Unsurprisingly, it proves to be an extremely cathartic and enlightening experience for him as well.
I did have one problem with the book which is this: while it delves realistically into every aspect of the emotional lives of the characters, there is a portion which is completely unbelievable. Throughout the story Ian’s illness is treated more as a plot contrivance than an actual disorder, and the deus ex machina of the Alzheimer’s is at times so overt that it’s comically obvious Ian is just there to move the story in the direction the author needs it to go. However, the narrative was so delightful in every other respect, that it didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the novel.
There is a romance in this book, but it doesn’t take place until after the halfway point. The author provides a couple possible Romeos for Eve’s Juliet, so all I will say on this subject is that I loved the guy and love story Eve winds up with.
Just Last Night is a wonderful tale of friendship, the complexities of adult relationships and the joy of discovering who you are meant to be and whom you are meant to be with. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a well-crafted book that is emotionally rich and satisfying.