Saturday 18 November 2017

Lesbianism, diabetes & a returned emigrant's complicated love life . . .

Everyone has someone in their past they'd rather forget about. For 33-year-old chef Clara, that someone is ex-boyfriend Jason, a controlling solicitor with whom her future was once all neatly mapped out.

Ten years later, Clara has well and truly moved on, and is now living in London with her new flame, Matthew.

However, when the young couple decide to move home to 'settle down', what happens next is entirely unsettling.

At a time when so many members of Generation Emigration are heading in the opposite direction, Dubliner Clare Dowling's seventh novel happily bucks the trend with protagonists Clara and Matthew returning to rural Ireland instead.

So when the loved-up pair cram the contents of their flat into the back of their Renault Megane to set off for Castlemoy, you're already rooting for them.

But it soon becomes clear that it's not the only baggage Clara's got when she bumps into her ex.

From that awkward first meeting to the petty squabbling about who dumped who, Dowling captures the 'Ex Factor' painfully well.

When Clara notices Jason's car following her one night, though, the clue is in the book's title.

Suddenly, her fresh start with Matthew begins to turn sour.

With a colourful cast of supporting characters and multiple sub-plots, admittedly, it takes a few chapters for Can't Take My Eyes Off You to take off.

Once it does, though, Dowling hardly takes her foot off the pedal until it winds to an end. By the time a cowed Clara is on all fours vomiting in terror on the kitchen floor, you're likely to be drawing your own curtains, too.

Diabetes, lesbianism and unplanned pregnancy are just some of the other topics Dowling deftly addresses in this chick-lit-with-a-difference book.

But there's plenty of romance and humour when it's most needed too.

With Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Dowling has once more successfully captured the drama of the everyday.

Nosy neighbours, old flames and new friends complete the recognisable community of Castlemoy. And while you'll naturally warm to some of its residents more than others, they're all human, too. Not even Clara is completely absolved of the events of the past.

So can you ever move forward when you move back to "small-town Ireland"?

Just like Clara and Matthew, whose own 'happily ever after' doesn't take the well-worn road you might expect, perhaps the moral of the story is that you shouldn't be afraid to give it a try.

Deirdre Reynolds

Irish Independent

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