“What if your boyfriend died right in front of you…”
When I first picked up this debut novel by Irish writer and comedian, Anna McPartlin, I scanned the beautiful photograph on the very sentimental cover, flipped to the back cover for more heartfelt prose and instantly knew I was in for a weepy, touching account of loss, despair and the enduring pain of love snatched away in its prime.
McPartlin, who tragically lost her own parents at an early age, and is therefore more than qualified to impart such pain, tells the tale of Emma, a high school teacher living in Dublin, and her childhood sweetheart John. Both in their late twenties, Emma and John are true soulmates, and live a lovely, contented life, typical of your average twenty-something couple. Emma enjoys a typical tight-knit bunch of friends, drinks at the pub, weekend getaways and a love of good girlie gossip with friends Clo, married couple Anne and Richard, and John’s dashing (and sleazy) best friend Séan. Adding colour to this social bunch is Emma’s brother Noel, a Catholic priest and a character who adds an element of depth and interest not explored enough in this novel.
Because You Are With Me opens promisingly with a witty and deftly written first chapter, where Emma patiently awaits the terrifying thin blue line on a pregnancy stick in the bathroom. I delighted in this chapter – in the concise, staccato-like sentences that cleverly portrayed angst, and the humorous and descriptive way Emma is placed as the lead character in this book. Written in the first person, McPartlin’s writing style draws you in quickly, as though dipping into a secret and very personal diary you’re gagging to read.
In chapter two, moments before John’s demise, Emma leaves a party reeling from an ‘accidental’, drunken kiss from Séan, John’s womanising best friend. The lovely John is knocked off this mortal coil shortly after, leaving Emma to reel in not only the sudden and tragic loss of sweetheart John, but in the questionable act of sleazebag Séan, who has made a career of stealing the kisses, hearts and virginity of women everywhere.
For me, Emma’s exploration of death, loss and grieving is far too short-lived in this novel. Days and weeks skip by to months and years far too quickly – and Emma instead turns her attention to the everyday, humdrum dramas of her friends, and the slowly creeping (or creepy?) but very obvious love attention of Séan. Unbelievably, Emma is slow on the uptake and doesn’t seem to cotton on to the fact that Séan has always been in love with her – and indeed, it seems everyone knows this except Emma.
After the clever and interesting way McPartlin explores the loss of John on each member of Emma’s group of friends, including her priestly brother Noel, the central idea behind the novel loses ground. Dear departed John is not forgotten in the novel – he is referred to occasionally, to assure the reader that Emma is not a heartless cow and will always love him – but the depth of the loss is just not shared. It doesn’t help that although Emma seems like a nice enough, everyday girl, the lack of character depth and development leaves the reader a little cold – there is simply little affection for Emma, and with lack of affection comes a lack of interest in her fate.
In fact, the only character that is explored with any depth is brother Noel. An interesting development with him keeps this debut novel afloat, but alas, McPartlin chooses to oust him from the central storyline for much of the second half. Thankfully, he later returns with a twist, helping to add interest to the ending.
The small, everyday dramas of Emma and her friends that continue through this novel aren’t tightly woven or impactful enough to make it page-turning, and McPartlin’s clear capability for wit is not interspersed nearly enough as it should have been. The love interest with Séan is manipulated to work and doesn’t feel real. The staccato sentence structure so charming at the novel’s entry point soon becomes somewhat irritating and it’s tiresome to read generic descriptions of grief and pain I’ve read a million times before.
The main problem with this novel, however, is its predictability. Not only can chapter endings (and indeed, the book ending) be almost totally conjectured, McPartlin also gives us ‘subtle’ clues along the way that are not only eye-rollingly frustrating, they’re about as subtle as the notches on Séan’s bedpost.
Despite these problems, McPartlin delivers a much more honed and finely-written ending, which mimics the talent found in the initial pages and is actually moving… for a while. It’s a powerful ending that could have had far more impact, however, had it not been tied up in a pretty bow.
Read Because You Are With Me if you would like to read a fun, youthful account of your everyday twenty-somethings exploring the outskirts of life, loss and love. Do not read it if you expect to cry, be moved or explore death and renewed love with any depth. It will be interesting to watch McPartlin’s development as an author in her upcoming novel – No Way To Say Goodbye.
All in all, the sentimental photograph and touching review blurbs coating the outside of this novel are promising, but I felt a little short-changed that the outside of this book simply didn’t match the innards. Alas, in this case, the old adage holds true – you can’t judge a book by its cover.