Book review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

One of life’s great truisms, as least if you are a lover of supposedly self-evident truths masquerading as slightly cheesy slogans, is that you can never really go back.

Sure, you can revisit the past with your therapist or think sweetly and nostalgically on it when the present gets too much but revive it in the present day? Not so easy and really all but impossible.

Someone had better tell Addie and Dylan then, the two central characters in Beth O’Leary’s (The Flatshare) brutally honest but thoroughly, hopefully romantic new novel The Road Trip, who find themselves, two years after an acrimonious yelly-screamy break-up, in the sort of situation that begs for that question to be answered.

To be precise, they find themselves sharing Addie’s sister Deb’s Mini which is hurtling up the road to Scotland for a wedding of their dear friend Cherry when a car slams into the back of them, totalling the back door and leaving Addie and Deb’s as the only vehicle capable of getting them to the church on time.

It’s all very romantic comedy meet-cute-ish except that for that Addie and Dylan have never talked about what happened between them, so sharing a small but trendy car is very awkward to say the least, and that there is whole lot more going on in The Road Trip than a cutesy of love possibly, maybe rekindled.

“‘Addie … can you not even look at me?’

I’m honestly not sure I can. Trying to look at Dylan hurts. It feels like we’re two magnets with the same force skidding away from one another. Instead I look out towards the green where a few people are exercising their dogs. A little poodle going around in circles, a sausage dog in a ridiculous pink harness. The sun is inching up behind them, drawing long shadows on the grass. I spot Marcus, crouched low to say hello to an Alsatian. I hope it’s an unfriendly one. I don’t want Marcus to get bitten or anything, but maybe he could even get growled at a bit.” (P. 19)

Not, of course, that it would matter if The Road Trip was simply an emotionally-charged of romantic rebuilding and rebirth,

That is bread and butter for the romantic comedy genre and there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from two people who goes from love to estrangement to back again because that doesn’t always happen in the real world.

But The Road Trip succeeds brilliantly because it goes far beyond this, offering us a heartbreakingly intense look at what happens to even the best relationships over time, especially if real heart-to-heart communication is scarce to often non-existent and the two people involved aren’t self-aware enough to know what they are adding, and more importantly when it comes to everything going south, subtracting to the partnership.

As we move beyond alternating then and now sections of the book, which co-exist flawlessly in the same narrative, each perfectly feeding into and bolstering the other, it becomes clear that while Addie and Dylan, who meet one summer in Provence when the former is the caretaker of the luxurious that the latter rents as a getaway from his rich, brawling family, LOVE each other, they are not so good as being in love.

They are, not to put too fine a point on it, prone to putting up defenses against the other, not consciously of course, which does nothing to help the long-term health of the relationship and which eventually and traumatically crumbles under the weight of so much unwitting self interest.

Beth O’Leary (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

With things ending as badly as they do, being cooped up in a very small if zippy car is not ideal but rather magically, and with a great deal of intense honesty and affecting charm, Addie and Dylan are forced to confront all the demons of their relationship, which have been getting a lot of introspection and therapeutic ruminating over the two years since they split.

The Road Trip is then a classic British rom-com farcically amusing premise, which only ramps up once the five people in the car – Addie, Dylan, Dylan’s strained and recklessly impulsive bestie Marcus and the mysterious Rodney whom no one really seems to know – with a thoughtfully insightful follow-through which is brilliantly moving in all the right ways.

There is happily a great deal of humour woven throughout the book with some classically funny scenes playing out in budget motels and in the forecourt of roadside service centres – there is one section where someone has to answer the call of nature during a traffic than is an exquisitely well rendered delight in and of itself – and you will find much to like about all the characters in their own gloriously flawed and all too human glory.

But there is also a lot of real and emotional impacting exploration of how we break and sabotage the very best things in our lives without meaning to, and whether it is, in fact, possible to come back from such broken moments and knit the fractured puzzle pieces back together again, especially when it comes to the heart which can love deeply and forgive not easily.

“I turn over; I can’t sleep. This is not an uncommon problem. I start to spiral, that’s the issue. I have one thought – for instance, I wonder what Addie thought she read my poems – and then I’m away, following the natural steps down that path, coming to the conclusion that oh, God, I still love her. I know I do. I feel like I never won’t. Everyone says there’s no such thing as The One and there’s plenty of fish in the sea but every time I meet one of those I just miss Addie more. I’ve given up on winning her back, and still that doesn’t seem to be enough to forget her – you’d think the agony of unrequited love would be sufficient to put your brain off the whole affair, but it seems not.” (P. 306)

There is, as a result, a substantial amount of soul-searing truthfulness to The Road Trip.

It has its fun, and heartwarmingly and humorously so, but it is at its best when it goes to the heart of matters, and allows Addie and Dylan, and their friends who as invested bystanders, have a great deal to contribute to the unexpected, vehicular relationship post-mortem and resurrection, to really speak from their heart.

These passages will resonate with anyone who has lost someone, either in friendship or love, and wonders if it is possible to get them back again, with the novel overall full of real characters doing very real human things and either paying the price for it or finding healing where they expected none to be.

Thanks to the muscularity of the storytelling The Road Trip feels like the perfect mix between farce and truth, the serious and the funny; in other words, very much like life is much of the time where the good and the bad spill into and over each other in messily uncomfortable ways which aren’t always easy to deal with or clean up.

Life in all its contradictory hilarity and soberness is everywhere in the moving, deep-thinking and feeling bouyantly thoughtful joy that is The Road Trip and it will grab you fast and hold you close for the duration as you wait to see if you can go back and if you do, whether there is, in fact, anything good to go back to.

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