An emotional read about grief, friendship, and learning to move on from pain. Emily Henry reviewed it as a book she wished she’d have written herself, only then she wouldn’t have been able to enjoy reading it, if that gives you a sense of the pacing and narrative structure of the book.
Plot: Eve has a close knit friend group – her best friend Susie, her mate Justin, and Ed, the guy she’s been in love with since she was 17, who has been dating a deeply unpleasant woman for the better part of 15 years, despite which, he might possibly reciprocate her feelings? At least a little? The toxic nature of some of these connections comes to a head one night, after their regular pilgrimage to the local pub trivia night, when Susie is fatally hit by a car. In the aftermath, the group’s unspoken secrets, and a few new ones, challenge their connections and force them to question the stable, if uncomfortable lives they’ve chosen for themselves, because they were too scared to reach for more.
This book, much like McFarlane’s other work, is light on plot, and heavy on emotional navel gazing. If you like the latter, and I do, you will find Just Last Night hard to put down. I’ve experienced a couple of deaths in my family in the last couple of years, and found Eve processing her grief in real time to not only ring true but feel cathartic. McFarlane deals with topics that, handled less carefully, could have been the basis for cheap drama. Instead, McFarlane uses discoveries made after Susie’s death with compassion, even when some of the discoveries are quite rough. Indeed, if there is one message to take away from this book it is that everyone will eventually hurt you, without meaning to, but that how that hurt is handled is the true test of any relationship.
This book, as with much of McFarlane’s work, gets put into romance as a category, but it isn’t strictly speaking A Romance. It doesn’t follow the same beats and the romance itself is not even really a B plot, more of a C plot, as far as its prominence goes in the story. This is more along the lines of what people derogatorily refer to as “chick-lit” – aka a novel that centres on the female experience. In practice, it means the romance is fairly undercooked, but frankly I’ve seen plenty of Romance Romance novels that do even less, so folks that enjoy a romantic plot in their fiction can still very much find something here.
Less forgivable is the treatment of our main character, Eve. She starts out the book stuck treading water. She doesn’t really like her job, is perennially single (since she’s kind of waiting for Ed to free up), and doesn’t have much going on in her life other than this friend group that doesn’t seem to do much other than just hang out, Friends style. Through her grief, she finds new urgency to take action on the things in her life that feel stagnant, but we don’t really have any resolution at all about anything except her romantic life. Since the romance isn’t the point of this story, it seems really odd to give the reader closure on this but not any of the other specific issues she has with her life. Not even a glimpse of what she might do. She’s still very much in the same place she was at the start of the book, but with her dating life somewhat sorted and, more critically, having come to some sort of peace with the knowledge that her grief is a part of her life forever, rather than something that will crush her. Reading for processing grief – great, reading for meaningful evolution of Eve’s character – much less satisfying.