3 out of 4 stars
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Manchester by the Tea
There are some novels that wash over you as quickly as an ocean’s wave. They’re forgotten just as easily; you, like the ocean, have moved on. Other books remain below the surface, an intrinsic part of the deep. Which stories stay with you is not dependent on the quality of the writing, but where you are on life’s journey when you read them.
The Second Cup delves deeply into the question of how we let go of old personality traits that no longer serve us.
Because the story is written in both first and third person omniscient points of view, it is sometimes difficult to tell about whom the author is speaking with the all-knowing eye. This is intentional by the author, and whether it works (or not) is dependent on the reader. Repeats are meant for emphasis, not confusion. I know this because I was confused, and instead of trying to divine an answer, I just Googled the author and asked her directly. Once I understood the how and why, my connection to the book grew deeper… but I do not want to divulge our conversation because it contains too many spoilers. You’re on your own.
Each character, however, becomes wholly new in her own words. There is never a denouement… the end is the beginning, with the exception of secondary characters that help these personal changes rise from abstract to logic. It is fascinating to watch feelings become actions, not once leaving a character in the same emotional place in which they begin.
For this reason, the novel seems to center around character study rather than plot. This is not to say that there isn’t one, but that the author delves much deeper into the characters’ thoughts and feelings than she does into moving the story forward.
Introducing the Main Characters/Some Exposition
Faye is mystified and miserable when her boyfriend, Jack, decides to move to London by himself. While studying as an art major at university, a professor tells her that he wishes that the college only took mature students into the program, because instruction is no substitute for life experience. Faye realizes just how much the professor is correct, because all of her emotions spill onto the canvas. Seven years later, she runs into Jack, and steels herself for a confrontation only to find out it’s not really him, just a doppelganger. Faye decides to track down her real lost love, going to library after library for public records because there is no trace of him on the Internet. She does locate his parents, and when she knocks on their door, is dumbfounded by their response. She then proceeds to seek out Jack’s best friend, and the puzzle pieces fall together.
When Faye announces that Jack has committed suicide, Beth crumples onto the floor and is rushed to the hospital, where she remains catatonic for weeks. The entire friend group is puzzled by this, because Beth and Jack had never met. In the psych ward, it is only the ritual of the nurses bringing her cups of tea that help her come back to herself.. As this is happening, there are flashbacks to her extraordinarily harsh upbringing, and Jack’s death is just the catalyst for a breakdown that’s been waiting to happen for a long time. It wasn’t an emotional connection to Jack that caused her to spiral, but her own feelings of worthlessness. Ironically, it is another suicide that puts enough light in her eyes to let the doctors send her home.
Abbie is legitimately what one would call “a hot mess.” She’s been divorced once and starts wondering about a second. She drinks to escape all the things she’s determined to forget, but creep into her consciousness when she’s sober. At first, we’re lead to think she just has mundane problems and the drinking to escape is overly dramatic. Learning why this is not true broke my heart so loudly I thought I could hear it. Uncovering the real, as opposed to the superficial reasons for her escapeism leads to her own dramatic changes. She'd just been covering them up too long, and pretending she was fine.
Abbie and Faye take a back seat to Beth’s care, so it falls to Olivia to pick up their slack. Despite having to deal with issues every bit as personally devastating as the others, Livvy shows up. She goes to the hospital almost every day, even though Beth’s catatonia looks very much like a coma. There is no interaction between the two friends, so the point of view again switches to omniscient, so that the reader can see the thoughts running through each individual mind. Olivia is in a bad relationship and needs to leave, but feels beholden to her boyfriend for “rescuing her,” an act that takes a back seat to his recurring bouts of anger and unwillingness to interact, preferring to play video games, eat junk food, and let everything fall down around him. It leads the reader to think that Olivia’s constant visitation of Beth is her own avoidance tactic.
Each character’s desire to change starts when the avoidance tactics stop working, and all the women busy themselves with figuring out why. Chatting over a cuppa or a pint slowly peels back the layers of insulation they use to maintain socially, because in order to get where they want to go, they realize that they have to stop being polite and engage, both with each other and their significant others. No one in this novel goes through a truly universal problem, they just think they do. The mundane covers up the unusual until the situations become dire enough to need addressing. In Beth’s case, this is literally a life or death situation, because her desire to change has to start with finding reasons to want to be alive.
Readers who suffer from severe depression brought on by past trauma may be triggered by reading Beth’s story. It closely mirrors the author’s own illness, as she’s said publicly. I think this is why the writing regarding Beth’s character is some of the best, because at its heart, writing is a comprehensive response to life. Putting some semblance of her own pain onto a fictional character made Beth, for me, extremely loud and incredibly close.
In the beginning of the review, I said which stories stay with you is not dependent on the quality of the writing, but where you are on life’s journey when you read them. I think I connected more with Beth’s illness and her friends’ response to it because I’ve been there. I’ve worn that scar on my skin…. but this novel does not depend on the reader’s personal connection to what is happening. It issues an invitation to empathy and sympathy to everyone who thinks, I like this title. I think I’ll buy it.
Lastly, some sections are introduced with a connection to a different type of tea, and the theme of a second cup has been sewn with a fine thread throughout. One of the best examples of this is some of the characters going on a spinning teacup ride at an amusement park… and if someone mentions a second cup, it is repeated every single time. If I were you, I’d put the kettle on before you even get to the table of contents, because if you didn’t want tea before you started reading, you soon will.
Maybe even a second cup.
My Official Rating
I rate this book 3 out of 4 stars. I thought the characters and the storyline were engaging enough to reread, because I think that I will pick up different things on both a second read and a different time in my life. The only reason I'm docking it one star is that because the narratives were not always clearly attributed, I sometimes got lost and had to flip back and forth. The three stars shine brightly, though, because few books leave me with the feeling that the author was writing about me.
The Second Cup
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