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A friend of mine at book club absolutely loved O’Farrell’s book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I half-heartedly tried to read at one point. Since I trust her recommendations 99% of the time I felt bad about putting it down. So when I saw this O’Farrell book on the library shelves at the resort in Phuket I thought I would give it a go and make Wendy proud.
The Distance Between Us is about two sisters Stella and Nina who were born to Italian parents in Scotland and Jake who was born to a British women in Hong Kong. Oddly enough, like Her Fearful Symmetry (reviewed below), the sisters have been extremely close their whole lives (although not twins) and have some issues related to dependence and independence. Jake on the other hand is alone. His mother lives in New Zealand, he has no siblings, and his mother never even knew his father’s full name. He ends up in the UK for the first time in his life in his early 20s and finds himself a fish out of water. Eventually these two story lines intertwine in ways that are not wholly unexpected but surrounded by details that will surprise.
This book was immediately enjoyable and has many fascinating storylines. One of the more fascinating is the story of how Jake’s mother ended up in Hong Kong. In the 1960s she makes her way there overground in a VW bus by hitchhiking, trains, etc. via Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India…you get the picture. Hooking up (in more ways than one) with various people along the way. Not only does such a journey appeal to my own wanderlust, but it was a snapshot into a time when one could contemplate such a journey through parts of the world that seem highly problematic today.
Jake’s status as a British boy who has never been to Britain is also fascinating. I read this book in Chiang Mai and had been thinking about what it would mean to relocate to Asia permanently. My reaction, not surprisingly to me, is that I could never do it. Could never embrace fully all the differences and would always be pining for home. (And as much as I would love to live in Europe or the UK, I think I would ultimately feel the same way, always having a sense of not being “home”.) When Jake finally makes it to the UK he has all the feelings of dislocation and disorientation similar to what I was experiencing in Thailand. But to my Western-biased mind it seemed odd at first that this Brit would feel that way about his homeland. My extremely narrow-minded thought was “why would anyone prefer Hong Kong over the UK”. Of course Jake’s story helps me blow that personal ignorance (if not my own personal preference) to smithereens.
Stella and Nina also have interesting life stories (and Stella has a big secret) and I found all the characters interesting and likable. This was one of those books that is fun and is so compelling that I didn’t want to put it down. Thankfully I was sitting next to a pool in Phuket so I didn’t have to.
Now I need to give the Esme book another chance.