A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Emily Bell: This Year’s for Me and You, PenguinBooks, London, 2022
RRP: Au $22.99 (paperback)
This novel’s cover and blurb proclaim its genre as romance and links it firmly to Christmas reading, but it in fact celebrates New Year and makeovers. It’s a novel that cannily pitches to contemporary women in Dublin and London who are aged between about 15 and 40, and maybe older. It may be romance but has ambition.
It creates a world in which young well-educated modern Irish women will find themselves represented. The key character, Celeste, works in a business consultancy in London, advising, among others, young idealistic ethical entrepreneurs. She moves among cosmopolites like herself for whom London is nearly as familiar as Dublin and where easy commerce between the two is enjoyed. Money is no object and she can dress well if she chooses, enjoy operas, dine out, pitch in to restore a grand home that one of her peers has inherited, and travel on the Eurostar to Ghent for an exciting romantic liaison. But glamour is not really the point.
What is being negotiated by a tight group of friends is grief over the death of one of their peers. They are tentative and often inarticulate in the ways they share their common grief. It is unfamiliar territory. Emily Bell explores the impact on Celeste of the death of her Loreto school friend, Hannah, as she voluntarily elects to fulfil the dying woman’s New Year’s resolutions, twelve of them, alongside some of her peer group who cheer her on and join her in some tasks. They are all decent people, and this modern romance avoids anything as crass as demonising the plot’s mistaken lover (a staple of the romance genre). He is already well-known to her and her circle, and what disqualifies him from being ‘the one’ is that he belongs to her past self rather than the one she is crafting in the course of completing Hannah’s challenges. This is a refreshing variation on the codes of this genre.
Hannah’s death is reported in an understated way: a ‘senseless’ accident on a European skiing holiday, a simple head injury on compacted snow. The death is despatched in one paragraph because the novelist is interested in exploring not only grief but what friendship means. Celeste’s decision to implement one of Hannah’a New Year’s resolutions per month takes her into energising new experiences which challenge her sense of self. In the process, she comes closer and closer to internalising her dead friend’s life orientation. This programme of tasks (from hot yoga and a visit to an astrologist to assisting the new beau in scattering Hannah’s ashes on Dalkey Island) allows the reader to see how her grief (and her peer group’s) changes its lineaments over the course of a year, and forces growth and change in the main protagonist.
The fast-track corporate job demonstrates Celeste’s moral courage in making the break from Dublin in favour of a wider domain in London and the Home Counties, but it is also critiqued as a trap which effectively destroys her joie de vivre, something Hannah had in spades. The assumption the novel makes is that Celeste could most usefully inherit her friend’s vitality and sense of adventure, so the tasks become a therapeutic programme. They constitute the spine of the novel. The measure of Celeste’s progress in this therapy is her adherence to a new risk-taking lover, and her responsiveness to a poem which had been recited at the funeral but was not well understood by her until the final task was completed.
It is interesting to observe how this writer draws her main characters back into the nostalgic but changed pleasures of contemporary Dublin, back to family and old friends, and to a culture that is greatly changed during the 15 years Celeste has spent in London immersed in a competitive world of work. Dublin is more cosmopolitan, can offer kinder versions of the job she’s succeeded at in London, as well as Korean and Italian food, cafe culture and elegantly refurbished sailor’s cottages in Dalkey. Monkstown is surprisingly Mediterranean in its ambience: even the Moorish Catholic Church which was so strange when it was first built. This is a novel that revels in perceived transformations. One symbolic motif which is continued subtly throughout is of a garden given new life with loving care.
For the reader who is interested in contemporary social mores of Irish expats in London and the slow return of the ’80s generation to Dublin from far afield, this is familiar territory to Emily Bell (she studied in Dublin and Oxford) and will intrigue those who yearn for a grounded if romantic description of it. Be wary of characters who say they could never marry an Irishman or woman!
Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.