By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill, Hannah McWhinnie and Lily Baldanza
Witty, warm and compellingly sharp, Mhairi McFarlane’s Between Us explores the authenticity of friendships and relationships through the perspective of thirty-two-year-old teacher, Roisin. Whisked away on a whirlwind weekend trip, Roisin, her screenwriter boyfriend Joe and their group of friends slowly uncover hidden truths about each other, brewing a storm that may just change how these old friends see each other forever. Tackling important and relevant topics such as wealth, exploitation of power and finding your autonomous voice, Between Us finds the perfect balance of brutal realism and optimism. McFarlane’s charming and relatable writing style allows her reader to quickly fall in love – or, at some points, despise – her characters, making each reader feel like the welcomed eighth member of the group. Both thrilling and uplifting, this story truly is a weekend to remember.
As Between Us is McFarlane’s ninth novel, she admitted that it is “definitely harder” to come up with concepts for her books throughout her writing career. In a conversation with her editor, McFarlane said “there’s this terrible irony” that she gets “more confident with writing but the ideas are harder to come by.” Understandably, nine books in, McFarlane has “used up” most of her ideas and she believes this is most likely a result of the fact that she only writes within one genre. She won’t suddenly invent a “detective” or a “murder” in one of her books, so it’s difficult to break free from genre conventions. From the girl meets boy trope in her debut novel, You Had Me at Hello, to the fake dating in If I Never Met You, there seems to be more boundaries and constraints within writing romantic comedies. That being said, McFarlane said she’s always in pursuit of a new “challenge” and wants to find what she’s “not done before.” Her personal mantra is that “as long as I’m not bored, hopefully, I won’t bore you.”
Within the very crowded market of contemporary romance novels, writers often need a good hook to entice their readers. However, McFarlane admitted that she doesn’t “think in terms of hooks” and is only concerned with what “interests and excites” her. As a writer, she’s in a position where she can leave the commercial side of things to the publisher to create a “snappy one-liner on the book jacket.” Not even sure how she “comes up with the ideas” for her novels, she just thinks to herself: “where have I not been before?” and “what if?”, then ventures in whatever direction it leads her.
Within Between Us, money is consistently brought up as a chasm between the friends, with Dev having copious amounts of money to throw around, as well as Joe with his newfound fame, whereas others in the group don’t have the same disposable income. McFarlane agreed that money can be a taboo subject and a “difficulty among friends” and that it’s important for friends to “listen to each other.” In relation to the novel, she reflected on where Roisin says to Dev that he needs to stop paying their way, such as funding the flights to his exotic wedding, but he refuses to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings. While Dev’s generosity is an “asset to his personality,” he doesn’t know when to stop. As a large group that formed in their early twenties, they all go on to experience different levels of fame and success. Therefore, there is bound to be “a point when the bonds start straining” and for McFarlane, “money and careers” is perhaps the first “point of tension” within the group.
The romantic relationships within the novel are also under a fair amount of strain. In particular, Joe’s increasingly cold and crude attitude seems to have gone unnoticed, for the most part, until his recent career successes made his ruthless remarks all the more insufferable. It was difficult to decipher whether Roisin was caught off guard by this behaviour. McFarlane suspects that “her own ego” has led her to believe that she is a “good judge of character,” which she later projected onto her heroine. When Roisin asks herself if success has changed Joe, she concludes that “he was always that person” but when his “smartass underdog” shtick was a kind of “punching up,” it all sat better. McFarlane pointed out that once Joe had money “his cutting remarks looked that much worse” because they “came from a place of power.”
McFarlane also admitted she was worried that “someone like Roisin would’ve noticed” that he didn’t treat other people well because that is a “pretty unforgivable” thing to do. She went on to confess that the book doesn’t completely explain how Roisin tolerated that, but, in a way, leaving a gap for the reader’s imagination is “not the worst thing” in the world. In McFarlane’s mind, the expectation was that “had Roisin been daft enough to stay with Joe, had she not figured out what he was up to, he would have left her for someone else within a short time.” She even goes as far as to acknowledge to herself that he feels “un-dumpable” because he is such a big catch. His whole thing with Roisin, McFarlane thought, was that if they were going to split up, he wanted to be the one to leave her, which does not fit the definition of passionate commitment.
Of course, some of Roisin’s unease is a result of the issues that have gone unaddressed from her past and as the book unfolds we begin to understand her reasons for this. However, McFarlane “did not conceive of Roisin as someone with poor mental health.” She explained that the mental health aspect, if there is one, relates to the “messages” Roisin receives from her self-conscience. McFarlane added that she liked using the self-conscience as a device, because “it felt real” and like “something that she understood.” Still, she often worried that “it felt a tad convenient” at times, the idea that the self-conscious is going, “hey, you need to look over here!”
McFarlane went on to point out that when it comes to her job, Roisin is “capable, stoic and well-intentioned.” But she added that “people who operate with good intentions and won’t lie don’t always know how to deal with someone who has bad intentions and will lie.” McFarlane keeps returning to this central theme of lying because it intrigues her so much. She explained, “I’m intrigued by why people do it and the psychological power play of lying.” In this sense, Joe gave her the perfect opportunity to explore his lies in more depth.
The exposé of Joe’s lies at the novel’s climax demonstrates not only Joe’s despicable character, but also his abuse of power as a writer, opening up the ethical question: when is it acceptable to use other people’s experiences as inspiration and material for your creative work? When asked what her thoughts were on this process, McFarlane realised that she didn’t have a “‘one size fits all answer,” but assured that “if I’ve ever used anything, I’ve asked people.” In the process of fictionalising experience, “you change all the details and you embroider and you push those characters off into different directions,” often leading the writer to forget the source of their idea. But if these ideas are so explicitly recognisable, McFarlane explains that she will always “want their consent,” rather than giving them “a nasty shock.”
The friendship group, better known in the book as ‘The Brian Club,’ is tentatively held together by a (mostly) mutual feeling of nostalgia for the days when they met, all aged twenty-two, working in a Waterstones store. McFarlane recalled Roisin’s comment that “we can’t be twenty-two again, so the best thing to be is around all the people you knew when you were twenty-two,” suggesting that “fear of the unknown,” “loss of youth” and loss of the “simplicity and optimism” of being in your early twenties unites the characters, but also hinders them from breaking free from their slowly fraying group. With her story set ten years after the group’s formation, making her characters thirty-two years old, McFarlane explained that she chose this age because “your early thirties are when you first encounter proper nostalgia and proper regret.”
Whilst Roisin is “particularly nostalgic about her friends”, the clear tensions in the group elaborate on how it is impossible to repeat the past. With Dev organising the weekend to prove that they’re “still a really tight gang,” existing “antipathy between Joe and Matt” and Gina’s realisation of her unreciprocated feelings for Matt being “unhealthy,” it is no surprise that Roisin “is starting to realise that they are fraying.” Yet McFarlane is particularly proud of how her book encourages the reader to neither “hang on” or “get rid of” the reader’s friendships from their early twenties. McFarlane ultimately emphasised that even in tricky situations such as this one, “some of those friendships” are obviously going to be “lifelong” and “really meaningful,” whilst the less “sustainable” friendships “don’t matter and they probably need to move on.”