Beth O’Leary has proven herself to be one of those talented authors that you can depend on to deliver highly readable books that are both accessibly escapist and yet which come with ready wit and the meat substance of the human experience folded in.
Her novels to date such The Flatshare, which is soon to be a TV series, and The Road Trip, have proven that you can deliver up a soul-satisfying romance but not forsake thoughtful ruminations on love, friendship, hope and its absence.
They possess a giddy escapist loveliness true but they also feel like real people grappling with the weighty issues of life, something which comes even more to the fore in The No-Show, an ingeniously clever novel that tells the story of three different women who fall into the orbit of geeky but hunky guy, Joseph Carter.
On the surface, he comes across as one of the good guys – well read, sensitive, articulate, supportive and dreamily good-looking, the sort of perfect package that women (and no doubt more than a few men) dream of – and yet time and again, Joseph is a titular no-show when it comes to important moments in the lives of Siobhan, Miranda and Jane, all of whom are struggling with some major issues of their own.
To one extent or another, they don’t necessarily need Joseph since they’re all strong, independent women but they face some real challenges and like all of us, they want someone unconditionally standing in their corner to get through the tough times, all of which O’Leary brings affectingly to life.
By the time Miranda gets home it’s half four, and there’s still no message from Carter. She misses her old flatmate – she could really use someone to make her a sympathetic cup of tea right now. She stands in the middle of the living room, listening to the traffic outside, wondering whether Carter decided she wasn’t right for him after all. (P. 16)
And yet for all his heart-capturing good points, Joseph has one major failing.
He keeps not turning up to things, and at the start of the novel, they are all on Valentine’s Day with all three women stood up at breakfast dates (Siobhan), lunch (Miranda) or an engagement party (Jane), which is bad enough at any time but especially so on the most romantically charged day of the year.
No matter what you might think of the day itself, it’s impossible to ignore as a day upon which many romantic expectations rest, and so, you can well understand why all three women feel supremely let down by a man who gave every indication he was not like all the other bastards out there.
The big question that dangles throughout the book, and here O’Leary is superlatively clever in her execution, is whether Joseph really is a messily disorganised, cheating cad or whether there is something entirely else at play here?
That is the sheer delight of The No-Show – it looks like all three women are being played, and played with thoughtless insensitivity and certainly much of the time that seems to be precisely what’s going on.
But then the story twists, and then turns, and you’re left wondering whether something entirely different might be going on?
To go any further down that particular narrative line of questioning would be spoil a book that is impressively clever in its execution and deeply affecting in its emotional scope, with The No-Show defying any and all expectations you may have of it.
While we can’t delve too far into what it has going on below the obvious – trust us, it’s a lot and the payoff off this page-turning piece of romantic brilliance is absolutely worth racing through its 389 pages which you will be compelled to do, so good is it – what we can say it that The No-Show has a huge of fast-beating humanity beneath its superbly rendered plot.
It tackles some hugely weighty issues such as the crushing impact of grief and how it can reshape your life for the worst in ways you don’t see coming, and sexual harassment and power plays in corporate life and how devastatingly the actions of one man can affect the life the women they prey upon.
In that respect, O’Leary’s latest novelistic gem is a cut above in the intensity level to her previous efforts.
While they had some rewardingly substantial human moments and gravely serious issues for their characters to grapple with – it’s O’Leary’s willingness to mix the seriously of real life with romantic escapism that makes her novels such standouts in the literary rom-com genre – they were more predisposed to witty oneliners and absurdist funny moments, the kind that make these stories such a pleasingly fun to read.
‘Cheers to that,’ says Marlena, lifting her glass. ‘So are we coming with you? To this party?’
‘To pick up the pieces if he’s in love with another woman, you mean?’ Siobhan says wryly.
‘Umm, no. To celebrate the joyful moment when you win your man back,’ Marlena corrects her. (P. 252)
The No-Show takes the very best part of O’Leary’s delightful readable and movingly true work and takes it up a notch, offering a series of interwoven stories that confound the mind, touch the soul and warm the heart.
Even better, while the novel is a supremely intelligent undertaking with some fiendishly clever and complex plotting at work – you imagine a seat of intricately marked out Post-It notes across O’Leary’s writing room wall, all of them there to make sure it all makes sense in the end (and it’s does to a dizzyingly satisfying degree – it retains a tremendous amount of heart at its core as it dives deep into what it means to be human and how, all indications to the contrary, that we never truly know what’s going on in someone’s life.
In that sense, The No-Show is a great cautionary tale, though you suspect that’s not even remotely the intention, that you should never make assumptions about what’s going in someone’s life; we’re all tempted to since placing someone’s else life into a easily-understood box of our own making is almost a default, helping us to make sense of it all, but the truth is, peoples’ lives are super intricate and confounding and that’s true of Joseph as much as anyone.
At the end of the day, what The No-Show is is a novel that really knows what it is like to fall for someone, to struggle to relate to them through a mountain of your own limiting issues and what it feels like when trust is finally given only to have it possibly thrown back into your face.
Miranda, Siobhan and Jane are all wonderfully fleshed out characters, as is Joseph in the end and the affecting brilliance of The No-Show is that it never shortchanges any of its characters, giving each of them plenty of time to tell their story, in the process serving up a story of romantic possibility and life’s harsh realities, its joys and great sadness, and reminding us that no matter how dark it gets at times, that there is hope, in some form just around the corner (even if it’s painful to get there much of the time).