Title: The Forever Girl
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Review: I have loved Alexander McCall Smith’s books since I first picked one up, and so I have been waiting for the release of this, a standalone novel, ever since I first heard about it. It pains me, therefore, that I’m unable to shout about how marvelous it is to you all or how you should rush out to buy it immediately because actually, I found it disappointing.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained—but in venturing, all could be lost. Some people just can’t accept that risk, and Clover is one of them.”
Through more than 50 books, Alexander McCall Smith has reliably delivered stories about being human—our foibles and delights, our loves and sorrows—no matter where we live or what we do. Mainly these have been through four series, but occasionally he pops out a standalone novel such as The Forever Girl.
Initially set in the Cayman Islands, this is the story of Clover. Or it might be the story of her mother, Amanda. For a while the book isn’t clear about whose story we should be following more closely. Anyway, let’s say that it’s the story of Clover, whose best friend, at the age of six, is a boy called James. Clover falls head over heels in love with James, and we follow her long-suffering, unrequited love affair as she travels to Scotland, to Australia, and to Singapore. I think the first issue, of whether the story was about Clover or about Amanda, is significant.
Although he sets up the idea of children following in their parents’ footsteps and making the same mistakes in love and life as their parents have, it still feels like Amanda’s story for quite a lot of the book, and I was left wondering where she was and what was happening to her through the later chapters, and my queries were never properly answered. Although she does come back into the book there were no satisfactory conclusions to her own life story. This story concentrates on the wonder and melancholy of love. It is much more melancholy than his other works, because it studies the reality of love, which is often unfulfilled or unrequited.
In fact, the title (a rather plain one, uncharacteristic from an author who specializes in clever, original titles) might more appropriately be Love Hurts, because of this:
“[T]here’s an expression that people bandy about: love hurts. It sounds like one of those things that people say without thinking because they’ve read about it somewhere, or heard it in a song. But those things are often true, even if they sound corny and over-used. Love really does hurt. It hurts when you realize how much you love somebody. It hurts whether or not that person loves you back and everything goes well, or whether they don’t and they ignore you or treat you badly. It just hurts, because that’s the way love works.”
That about covers it.
The story is told through two points of view: young Clover, the forever girl (“Whoever is up there in the sky looked down on me and said—‘It’s forever for you’”), and her mother, Amanda. While Amanda falls out of love with her husband and tiptoes toward an affair without ever actualizing it, her daughter at six years old finds the love of her life in her mother’s not-lover’s son, James.
As for Clover, I didn’t find her to be believable. Or perhaps I did believe in her character, but I didn’t like it very much! She was so passive. Things just happened to her. She just pootled along, being ‘in love’ with James for years and years without doing anything about it but quite blatantly letting it rule her life, and ruin her life. I wanted to give her a good shake. It seemed like several other characters in the story wanted to give her a good shake too! Where were the strong, wonderful women characters that AMS usually writes so well? I’m certain Mama Ramotswe would have had plenty to say to young Clover! And James, the love interest, was so empty of character, such a figment of her imagination, that I really didn’t care whether they ended up together or not – it seemed unlikely that they would be able to sustain a long and happy marriage. I think the problem was that I never really believed that it was true love. It just felt, throughout, that Clover was just pining after an ideal man, rejecting others because they could never live up to his image in her mind.
“James made everything seem special, as if the sheer fact of his presence cast a light upon what was around him that was simply not there in his absence.”
And thus he captures Clover’s heart, unaware.
Initially her best friend, James grows up to seem indifferent to Clover, causing her an adolescence and young adulthood of angst. Her challenge in life is to learn how live without the one she loves more than anything.
She can’t say he broke her heart, because there was never a togetherness to fracture. Her longing takes her into deep philosophy, and ultimately a deep understanding of her mother.
The novel glows with evocations of place as well as secrets of the heart—a combination this author excels at. Armchair travelers will feel they’ve visited the Cayman Islands and Scotland, in particular. Clover never truly finds a home in either, or Australia or Singapore, where she follows in James’s footsteps. Usually I find myself, when reading AMS, to be mentally nodding along to the little comments and observations that he makes about life, but not in this book. I also, usually, find his stories to be ultimately uplifting, like a hug in a book, and this time I just felt rather miserable through the first half of the story, and annoyed through the latter half, and sad that I was feeling this way about a book I had looked forward to. It may be that some readers who have found AMS to be too saccharine in the past will prefer this story. It felt like he was writing in a different style. It felt like he wanted to write about love, but a more gritty real-life love and somehow, it just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t help wondering if he hadn’t really cared that much about these characters. I didn’t feel any love for them, and I wondered if he had too.
Throughout her globe-hopping, she is repeatedly encouraged by friends to make her love known to him. But she suffers a pride and insecurity that hold her back. A moral to the story emerges from her reticence, about not letting love go unspoken. It could be expanded to life in general: Nothing ventured, nothing gained—but in venturing, all could be lost. Some people just can’t accept that risk, and Clover is one of them.
But then, well . . . life is full of surprises, Mr. Smith reminds us—and Clover gets one to close her story.
It isn’t badly written, and it has its moments. I liked the girl that Clover lives with briefly in Australia, and the friendship with Judy in Singapore was bitingly portrayed, but overall I was left feeling disappointed, with unfinished ends in the adults’ stories and a distaste for and disbelief in Clover’s story too.
Buy it here: