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'The No-Show' is an adventure in romantic storytelling

The No-Show.
Berkley

Pay no attention to the pink illustrated cover. Though it delivers laughter and love, Beth O'Leary's The No-Show is more romantic dramedy with a side of mystery than zany romcom.

In its opening scenes, the "hero" of the piece disappoints three different women on Valentine's Day. It seems unforgivable, but there's more to the story than those facts. The truth is a puzzle the novel slowly reveals while making you fall in love with everyone involved.

At the center is handsome man of mystery Joseph Carter, the most sympathetic serial jilter ever. Everyone thinks he's a catch, including the three incredibly different women at the heart of the story. First there's Siobhan, whom Joseph stands up for breakfast on Valentine's Day. The sin is compounded by how crushed she is for having taken a risk. A breakfast date meant vulnerability. Siobhan and Joseph are busy professionals who live in different countries (he in England, she in Ireland) and most of their dates happened in hotel rooms, at times usually reserved for hookups.

"Sex is what we do," Siobhan tells friends via video-call as she processes her disappointment and wonders if this disaster is of her own making. Like a trinket, he could be shiny but false, and this letdown her fault for having a weakness for sparkle: "There's something about shiny things that appeals to Siobhan. Expensive jewelry, luxury lingerie, handsome men with perfect smiles. She knows they're probably too good to be true, but she just can't help wanting them all the same." Still, Siobhan allows that Joseph is hard not to like. He just has an "earnestness"; "if he were in a disaster movie, he'd be the guy who goes back for the minor character we're not even fussed about."

The second failed date is with Miranda Rosso, a tree surgeon who chose Carter for his presumed safety compared to her sexy coworker A.J. who has a bad reputation with women. To Miranda, "Carter" in contrast with A.J., has it all together: "Carter is the sort of guy who she'd imagine would never look twice at someone like her: he's so mature, has a well-paid job, wears proper tailored suits. And he's gorgeous." The day after their fail-date Joseph Carter shows up at Miranda's job site with flowers and a profusion of sincere apologies, which would be great if it wasn't part of a pattern.

Jane, the third and last jilted woman, works at the Count Langley Trust charity shop. Like Siobhan, she's also used to being disappointed by humans. She's actually using Joseph to avoid being set up with Ronnie, son of the nobleman after whom the charity is named. When the setup became a charity-shop-wide mission, Jane tells a little lie so prevalent in life and romance: She invents a fake boyfriend and then asks Joseph – whom she met at the bakery and talks about books with – to be her date for a party on Valentine's Day. Again, he's a no-show despite his genuine enthusiasm.

Despite the damage Joseph causes, he isn't cavalier, confident or callous; he's damaged and harboring secrets. He sees himself quite differently than these women see him. He knows in his bones that "Nobody would want me if they knew how broken I am." The mystery is how that can be true and Joseph can have done what he's done on Valentine's Day and how these relationships can grow with integrity. In addition, Jane, like Joseph, is carefully guarding her own past and private life and that's an important part of the puzzle as well.

I found The No-Show fascinating and worthy of more than one read. That said, structurally, this novel sometimes feels like a cheat. It's like a jigsaw puzzle with key pieces withheld for maximum effect. There are four main characters, but we only see the story through the eyes of the three women. Joseph's point of view is reserved for the end. Plus, like "Pulp Fiction," the narrative is deconstructed, with events unfolding out of sequence. But there's no timestamp to guide the reader and no indication as to how these perspectives and timelines fit together until close to the end.

Given these narrative choices, to read The No-Show is to be bombarded with more questions than answers. I relished it and I cursed it at the same time. For readers looking for a romantic narrative that follows a linear progression or traditional path, this is not that book. The No-Show defies classification: It's romance, it's mystery; it's domestic and psychological drama. But O'Leary is as generous as she is challenging. All four main characters experience true and lasting love (at least for a time).

O'Leary may not fit neatly into any of the usual categories, but she excels at what she does, which is to blend love and the darker realities of living – experiences like domestic violence and harassment— with humor and narrative experimentation. The No-Show is the culmination of these adventures in storytelling. As powerful and engaging as it is romantic, O'Leary's new novel has the emotional resonance of her debut hit The Flatshare with greater complexity.

At its best, the tender and fragmented narrative feels like a metaphor for experience – how we only ever know part of the story of our lives and control even less. Since grief and trauma hold space alongside the laughter, it's best for readers who like to be put through their emotional paces before the happy ending. Fans of the emotional ups and downs and surprises of authors like Abby Jimenez, Emily Henry and Mhairi McFarlane (Just Last Night and If I Never Met You) will adore it.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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