My Lover's Lover by Maggie O'Farrell

Stylish shots with the man who wasn't there
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Maggie O'Farrell is an astute commercial writer with an understanding of popular taste. My Lover's Lover, her second novel, is to literature what films such as Sliding Doors and What Lies Beneath are to cinema.

It makes sense to discuss her work in terms of film, as its influence on her work is so clear. Take the opening scene, for example, where the heroine tumbles chaotically at the feet of the handsome architect hero with his "glittering blue gaze". Pure Notting Hill. Or the one where she "battered his back and shoulders with [her] fists". Or how about that old standby where the future lovers spar feistily, trading insults and vowing eternal enmity before sprinting off down a hillside in giggling pursuit of each other?

It's entertaining up to a point, but a bit lazy. O'Farrell squanders her talent throughout the first half of this book, hits her stride in Part Two with some fine writing, and finally, after teasing us with hints of madness, murder and parallel realities, fails to deliver a dénouement.

The novel opens with Lily, a curiously insubstantial character, falling at the feet of the mysterious Marcus. With unconvincing haste, she moves into the vast trendy warehouse home he shares with his best friend, Aidan, an animator. Immediately she is assailed by terrifying ghostly visitations from Marcus's (presumably) dead previous girlfriend, a Gorgon-haired beauty called Sinead.

Neither Aidan nor Marcus will talk about what became of Sinead, and Lily is soon gripped with obsession. O'Farrell nods openly to Hitchcock here, with Lily and Marcus in one scene watching Rebecca on TV, and references to Vertigo in flashbacks to the falling scene.

The supernatural shocks are handled well, but unfortunately the characters are flat. Later, O'Farrell will intriguingly describe the Protean quality of Marcus, his Tofu-like ability to take on the hue of those around him; but for the first half of the book, he is a vacuum.

There's nothing beyond the glittering blue gaze. This may be because we're seeing him through the eyes of Lily, who is equally blank. Not until she discovers that her ghostly predecessor is, in spite of appearances, actually alive and well and living not too far away, does the book finally take off.

Lily confronts Sinead on Hungerford bridge, while a train thunders past, drowning her words. (cf On The Waterfront). In extended flashback, we learn the entire story of Marcus's first doomed relationship and the reason for Sinead's sudden departure. Having been hyped, the revelation of this mystery turns out to be a bit of a damp squib.

However, O'Farrell's account of the relationship between Marcus and Sinead shows what she is capable of. Everything loosens up, and the prose becomes more impressionistic.

Short interlocking scenes shift between past and present. Marcus is fleshed out, Sinead is a lively presence. Unfortunately, although this section is long and absorbing, its energy is not sustained to the end. The somewhat morose presence of Aidan comes to the fore as everything winds down.

There are really only two characters, Marcus and Sinead, and theirs is the only interesting relationship. The rest are shadows. Perhaps this is intentional, a way of concentrating the spotlight on the main dynamic; but I suspect that it's connected to Maggie O'Farrell's cinematic approach.

What works on film, however, does not always work in the novel. My Lover's Lover is a slick, stylish read and will do well, but she is capable of better than this.

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Come Back, Paddy Riley' (Virago)