I have MANY thoughts about If Only I Could Tell You written by British author Hannah Beckerman; some positive, some not so positive. Overall I did enjoy reading it, but in the end, decided it’s just not my usual genre.
As a little prelude to this review, I should introduce Book Club – born out of mine and my sister (Lucy, 21, likes macramé) deciding to be better at reading and meeting up, we take it in turns to choose a book to read that month and then meet up to discuss our thoughts on it. I’ll announce the book we will be reading for next month in a separate post if anyone would like any literary inspiration.
Audrey’s family has fallen apart. Her two grown-up daughters, Jess and Lily, aren’t speaking, and her two teenage granddaughters have never been allowed to meet. A secret that echoes back thirty years has splintered the family in two – but it’s also the one thing keeping them connected.
Now the choice that one of them made long ago is about to surface. After decades of silence, can anything bring them together again?
I am extremely judgmental when it comes to book openings; I put it down to my impatience of wanting to know what happens in a story. Normally, I power through openings I may not find hugely engaging hoping I will get hooked eventually. Beckerman’s opening, however, had me invested from the first page.
This book opens with the event described in the above blurb from the perspective of youngest sister Jess, but we do not know what has occurred. All we know is that her elder sister Lily nervously leaves the spare bedroom and demands her sister not to go inside. Fast-forward almost thirty years, we are left with a broken family.
This book was my Book Club choice after seeing it on Twitter and an Instagram page called Book of the Month which I will link here. The premise of the novel excited me; a domestic drama featuring a family torn apart by a secret reminded me of some of my favourite playwrights: Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. Plus, the main cast of characters is an array of women whose primary concern isn’t just their love interests. It was also described as heat-breaking and uplifting, two adjectives I love to see in any book review. I was excited.
In all honesty, the book was not exactly as I expected. It reminded me of a Nicholas Sparks’ novel rather than a hard-hitting drama about the complexities of people and families. If you like Nicholas Sparks, this is no insult! I am just personally not a fan, and perhaps had anticipated the book to be something different.
I shall try to explain without too many spoilers. The central crux of the novel deals with family bereavement which is explored beautifully and in a realistic way. However, it also deals with the issues of miscarriage, infidelity, parental pressure, terminal illness, suicide, hidden sexuality and marital feuds. It felt a little like too much had been crammed in. Some of these, at times very distressing moments, were merely a brief mention that didn’t seem to add anything to the plot, nor were they explored or developed at a later date. For example, with the character Lily, I could tell that the author was trying to show her to be flawed and unlikeable in parts, but with the amount of horrible circumstances she had to deal with, she just became the target for all of my sympathy and pity. This grew tiresome. I also felt a similar way about the granddaughters, Mia and Phoebe – they were almost like stock characters: the unsatisfied high-achiever and the rich kid outsider. Sometimes this book seemed to hinge on shock tactics as opposed to meaningful development.
That being said, I thought the writing was poignant and dealt with all of these aforementioned issues (however briefly) with sensitivity and without negative stereotypes. Despite some occasionally dodgy chapter endings (this line “before she knew it a memory was edging into her thoughts…” preceded a chapter that begins with a flashback… I mean, I could practically hear the twinkly flashback music in my head), I thought some of the imagery was brilliant, with some very quotable lines that matched the life-affirming ending Beckerman forged.
“There were as many different beginnings to a life as someone was brave and kind enough to allow themselves.”Hannah Beckerman
Beckerman’s plotting was also very impressive, at parts some of the twists in the story were akin to an Agatha Christie novel! I found myself genuinely surprised by some pretty large plot-twists and I was left guessing throughout. However there is no murderer to reveal, no I would have gotten away with it moment. Beckerman creates an extremely generous world where characters are forgiven (except that lousy husband, what a scum-bag), but in the end, no-one is to blame for decades of this family’s suffering. For the family, this is a perfect outcome. For me as a reader, I was longing for a villain to emerge, a darker narrative to prevail, the story definitely allows you to predict the worst. This is why I compared her novel to that by Nicholas Sparks. The characters are flawed, yes, but almost all are forgiven. Perhaps in a time of pessimism, global concern and suffering, this positivity is what we need, just not one I wanted from this book.
If you have read If Only I Could Tell You, let me what you thought in the comments!