My favourite romantic novels – part 1

HLAYI read all sorts of novels. I love a good murder mystery, a clever crime caper, anything that makes me laugh, and of course, a great love story. Romantic fiction is the one genre that I go back to again and again. When I look at the books I’ve re-read the most, it’s always the ones with a great love story at their heart. The same goes for other forms of story telling. The TV shows that have captured my imagination, and have kept pulling me back – even when the show goes dangerously off the rails (Hello, X-Files!) – are those that give us a proper relationship to get behind. Buffy & Angel, John & Aeryn, Stuart & Vince, and Mulder & Scully. (Don’t try and tell me our favourite FBI agents weren’t romantically involved.)

So, in no particular order, I decided to look at my favourite romantic novels and try to work out why they continue to tempt me back into their well-thumbed pages.

First up is:

Here’s Looking at You, by Mhairi McFarlane

I love all of Mhari McFarlane’s novels but Here’s Looking at You, her second, is my favourite. The book is told from two points-of-view – heroine Anna Alessi and hero James Fraser. Anna is hugely relatable which is no mean feat, considering she is drop-dead gorgeous and has a kick-ass job as a university lecturer in Byzantine history. But Anna’s life hasn’t always been easy. And the prologue zooms in on a humiliating incident at school where, while standing alone on stage at a talent show, she’s hit by ‘a confectionery tornado’.

It was a green Praline Triangle that got her first, glancing off her cheek and arcing onto the stage floor. She felt a small pain in her stomach as another missile hit its target, like a rubber band being snapped against her body. A purple one with the hazelnut sailed past her head and she ducked out of the way, only to catch a toffee penny on the chin.

And then came a hurricane of Quality Street, as the air filled with a blizzard of shiny,  multi-coloured shrapnel.

We feel for poor, friendless Anna (or rather Aureliana as she was back then), her bullies laughing backstage, including her secret crush James. Your heart breaks as the scene ends leaving her alone and helpless:

She had long ago steeled herself not to cry under pressure. Not only did she not want to give her tormentors the satisfaction, she’d figured out the less reaction you gave bullies, the faster they lost interest. She saw no reason to break that rule now and start weeping in front of a vast and hostile audience.

Unfortunately, at that moment of dignified resolve she was hit by a Coconut Éclair in the left eye, and they both started streaming anyway.

Back then, she was unpopular and teased for being overweight, but now we fast forward to present-day Anna, who’s gone from ugly duckling to swan. But the physical transformation hasn’t magically erased her insecurities and that’s what makes Anna such an engaging protagonist. We’ve all believed that if only that one physical imperfection was instantly corrected we’d be happy and confident. But Anna proves what we all secretly know: that’s not the case. If anything, her outer beauty makes her even more vulnerable – as her best friend Michelle tells her, she’s ‘gorgeous and insecure, the chauvinist’s dream’.

So, Anna is a fabulous character – what’s James like? Well, although guilty by association with the bullies at school, James seems to have turned out OK as an adult. He’s on a steep learning curve though, as he’s going through a divorce after finding out his beautiful art-teacher wife was having an affair. James starts to slowly realise that Eva’s skin-deep beauty is not enough. Maybe that’s an obvious realisation for a lot of people, but having arm candy gave James confidence. At one point he thinks that his work colleagues would automatically like Eva, and possibly admire him, just because she’s pretty. When he finds out that not many people liked her, he’s shocked.

So, as a reader you’re tuning into the fact that James is rather wary of good looks and it creates a barrier between him and Anna. He’s convinced he doesn’t fancy her anyway, although we both know that he is slowly falling for her. There’s a wonderful scene when they go bowling and the physical chemistry between them surprises them both. They were BOWLING, people. That nerdiest of pastimes. Yet in Mhari McFarlane’s hands knocking over ten pins turns into something sizzling hot.

Anna has convinced herself she’s over her crush on James and is half-heartedly dating other guys during the book, and the opening scene offers a window into just how disastrous Anna’s dating experiences are. Suffice to say that Mhairi McFarlane once described her book as ‘Pride and Prejudice with added piss-play.’ Luckily, Anna has good friends who help her laugh off her unfortunate encounters.

I read somewhere once that the it’s an individual scene that cements a work as a firm favourite and that’s definitely the case with HLAY. Something has happened in Anna’s past. It’s only hinted at, but the reader is aware of it right from the beginning. Well, the scene where we finally find out hit me in the solar plexus. I had to stop reading to give my blurry eyes a chance to recover. That scene is everything.

I’m not ruining anything by revealing that Anna and James eventually get together. The ending is kinda swoonsome; they’re in a restaurant and the subject of marriage comes up. Mhairi McFarlane gives us a perfect, romantic and funny version that in lesser hands would be cloying. And she does it with napkins. If that isn’t a sign of writing genius, I don’t know what is.

If you haven’t already read it, go and get it right now.

You can thank me later.