Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern has the distinction of being the first book I read in 2015. Thusly, it becomes the first book that I am examining for 2015. Obviously, I already reviewed Star Trek: Disavowed in January but given that my review was posted the first weekend in January that means I had already read Disavowed before 2015. (It’s entirely possible I’m thinking about this too much.)
Back to the review…
Sometimes, the events instigating the discovery of a good book isn’t exactly “word of mouth”. This is at least the 4th time I have come across an eclectic story I would have otherwise missed, if not for the wonders of the Internet and the almost retaliatory and abusive nature of movie trailers. I found Where Rainbows End by cycling through YouTube movie trailers, putting off, well, more important things. The movie, in case anyone was curious, is called Love, Rosie, which is coincidentally the United States title of Where Rainbows End.
Enough with the idiosyncratic back story though.
Where Rainbows End is by all accounts a rather generic story. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They fall in love. All coupled by the fairly mundane twist that they are childhood friends. In theory, this book should be subsumed by clichés. Certainly, it looks like someone took two sheets of metal (our main characters) and welded them together with an acetylene torch (the ad hoc trope/cliché of boy/girl romance). And, depending on your particular feelings about industrial art and high school shop class, it almost makes it out unscathed except for some unfortunate business with an epilogue.
Ahern’s 2004 novel follows two best friends, Alex Stewart and Rosie Dunne, from their first meeting, when they are all of seven years old, through the end of their mid-50s. It follows their friendship as they grow up, go to college (in Rosie’s case get knocked up) and live their lives. Alex and Rosie are very much in love and just as oblivious to the reciprocal nature of their emotions. This minor detail (often referred to in my own life as a miscommunication of epic proportions) entwines their co-existence as perpetual best friends as Life conspires to keep them separate through such plot devices as children, one night stands, and inexplicable marriages to the wrong persons.
Where Rainbows End is told through a series of IM chats, emails, and letters. For the most part these exchanges are brief, centering around a myriad of different characters who support Alex and Rosie in their lives as friends and foils.
It is also most assuredly worth reading.
Normally, I would be worried about giving away spoilers (and then do it anyway), except I’m not really sure we can avoid that in a book like this. It’s fairly obvious that Alex and Rosie (while Rosie is really the main character I have chosen to order them Alex and Rosie simply for alphabetical reasons, not for gender particular bias) will eventually wind up together. The intrigue in Where Rainbows End lies in how they arrived at this inevitable conclusion.
The plot and character arcs don’t really require all that much explanation. They progress in a straightforward manner as each character aspires to live their life to fulfill their dream. Alex’s dream is to become a doctor. Rosie’s dream is to become the owner and manager of a hotel. They both plan to go to college and then Rosie is knocked up by a one night stand. Alex—as a man—is biologically unable to get himself knocked up, though one gets the feeling that if “he” were a “she” that possibility would present a distinct possibility.
At this point, I should point out in all fairness that I did not read Where Rainbows End because of the plot. I became engaged in the unfolding story because of the manner in which it is told. The narrative progression, charted through letters and IM chats—and solely those exchanges—present a singular challenge, especially in the context of modern communication. Ahern shows the evolution of her characters through their efforts to write short notes, to more detailed letters about their lives, through several different mediums. In a day and age where most people are content to communicate in short bursts and 140 characters, this take on rapid fire and—honestly—incomplete communication is fascinating. So I read the book in it’s entirety because I want to see not the outcome of the plot (because that was obvious), but I wanted to see how her narrative progressed when limited strictly to a conversational structure. Thankfully, Ahern comes nowhere close to falling short.
The language isn’t the most creative but is not supposed to be. It is distinct enough that it does not share the same side-winding mannerisms of legitimate conversation but is not stilted and direct enough that it feels artificial. This is relatively important considering the entire book is told through character exposition.
The character work in Ahern’s novel is virtually flawless. In a story told without speech modifiers—which is to say things like “she said breathlessly”, shrieked, or jumped for joy—each character’s voice must be distinct. Even when Alex’s dialogue is distinctly declared as his, because these are only instant message chats or letters, finding the mood and characterization is vastly more important because there are no external stimuli to help a reader form a mental image. Ahern relies entirely on her ability to convey a fully formed world and characters solely on written exchanges. For some idea how hard that is, imagine your standard text message conversation with a friend. Subtlety and nuance and cadence and emphasis on important words or phrases are entirely lost when viewed strictly through a text document.
That Ahern is able to convey this complexity of social interaction in a manner that never loses the reader to the intent of what the characters are actually trying to convey is an astounding act and unparalleled success. That she is able to do so in a believable manner where the characters can realistically be lost as to what the other person is trying to convey while simultaneously not losing the reader is even more impressive.
As for what little does exist of the plot and structure of the book, Where Rainbows End is broken solidly into five acts. Each act follows Alex and Rosie in particular intervals in their lives. The first being their early childhood. The second their 20s. The third in their 30s. The fourth in their 40s. And the fifth in their 50s. It’s relatively straightforward, so much so that I doubt gravity could instigate a curve in the plots singular trajectory.
As enjoyable as the character work is, and there is some nice parallels between Rosie’s daughter and Rosie’s own maturation, at some point, very possibly starting towards the end of act three, the story begins to feel a bit repetitive. The reader is continually waiting for Alex and Rosie to get their act together and then get together. This may very initially appear as a bit of an obstacle, since they have each had their separate lives set up, but given that almost a decade passes between each act that could easily been accomplished in a shorter time span. The failure of Where Rainbows End to reach that critical point at a faster pace seems to be the result of an artificial narrative structure imposed on the page. If you remove this (admittedly artificial by nature in any creative fiction) blockade, the story could have been more efficiently told and not taken up 400 pages. Perhaps a more reasonable 320 or 350.
If the story were continuously well told throughout, it is likely that as a reader I would never have noticed this lag and spinning of the wheels. However, because of the structure the story is presented in it becomes obviously a time killer. A little bit like the significant chunk of the seventh book of Harry Potter where our heroes spend a scheming portion of time in the forest for no apparent reason other than to fill out the predetermined timeline of one book per year.
Also weighing down the last third of the book is a series of much lengthier letters that are exchanged between characters. This approach is a rather abrupt and sudden departure from the short concise messages that were previously used to demonstrate character actions. When I say a change in length, I’m referring exchange that were previously two or three lines—at most—ballooning uncontrollably into letters that take 7 to 10 pages to unfold. This sudden shift in the presentation of exposition is jarring as Ahern’s implementation is inconsistent. Additionally, these longer sections of prose are littered with substantial increases in sensory detail (which is partially to say the book had previously existed without any sensory detail). This shift creates a distinct sense of inconsistency.
Still, the character work manages to rescue the plot, as it is enjoyable to see Rosie evolve towards an awareness of herself that might otherwise not have existed in a younger version of herself who seriously believed she had more time to waste. If I had to make any assumptions about the reason Ahern imposed such a rigid structure and timeframe on her story, it would be to actually actively exasperate the reader intentionally and to accentuate the desire of the reader for Rosie to reach her catharsis and personal realization through a series of demonstrated dramatic ironies. If that is the case then the additional pages and character exchanges added to the book do serve a purpose. However, I still can’t but help feel that the same feeling is achieved by roughly page 300 without needing the additional pacing issues.
The weakness of Where Rainbows End is only accentuated by the finale when Alex and Rosie do eventually express their feelings for one another via a series of highly coincidental and convenient events. Despite my joy at Alex and Rosie’s consummation of their lifelong love, I can’t help feel that it is inevitably unsatisfactory. The entire basis of the book is around of this mutual, unrequited love that each of them is unable to admit to the other. Despite everyone knowing that these feelings exist. The resolution, almost by default, cannot possibly live up to the expectation and anticipation of the moment. In that sense, Ahern might have been better off not showing their final reunion and simply leaving the reader with the understanding that they had reached that point in their lives.
All these criticisms aside, I still recommend Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern. It is a stunning piece of character examination that is very rarely seen in a world where sight is the most commonly referenced sense. That is to say that virtually all of this book takes place in the character’s heads and what might otherwise be a paragraph or page or even a footnote in other narratives is explored as if it was the most important thing in the world. And given that Alex and Rosie finally getting together is the plot of the book and one can reasonably assume that it is the most important thing in the world because otherwise we wouldn’t have a god damn story, intimate knowledge of their thoughts and perspectives isn’t just nice, it’s required.
As far as a recommendation goes, I would say that this is definitely a “read over the course of the week” type of book.
Did any of you read the book? What did you think? Did you enjoy the characterization and, well, we’ll call it a plot?