Book review: You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane

Think of David Nicholls’ One Day, add a week’s worth of northern humour and you have what could be one of the year’s funniest and most romantic books.

Breezing in on the wave of 2013 is Mhairi McFarlane whose very modern, very witty and very wonderful debut novel is a true labour of love.

Five years in the making and set in Manchester, the beating heart of the north, You Had Me at Hello also comes straight from the heart.

It’s a rollocking, rumbustious romantic comedy which bubbles over with engaging – but very credible – characters, slick dialogue, plotlines that tug at those heartstrings and all written with a nudge, a wink and an irresistible sense of fun.

Central to the story is that old ‘love story’ chestnut ... what happens when you meet up again with the boyfriend ‘that got away,’ the man you adored (and still do) but who slipped through your fingers, probably never to be seen again.

Rachel Woodford is a ‘doormat’ kind of girl who works as a court reporter, has been dating dullard Rhys for far too long, still lives with her old Manchester University flatmates and is well and truly stuck in a mind-numbing time warp.

But then Ben, her old uni flame whose memory has never really stopped lighting her fire, turns up again in Manchester ten years later and it’s as if she’s ‘woken up after a coma, been jolted back to life by a favourite song.’

Only trouble is that solicitor Ben is married to the beautiful, clever Olivia and his evidently shiny, joyful and functional existence puts into sad relief her own ‘decade-long stasis,’ making her feel as if she ‘sits around in a moth-eaten Miss Havisham graduation ballgown, listening to a crackly recording of Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’.’

Is their bittersweet reunion going to be the final chapter of their long-running story, or could it be the beginning of a whole new blockbuster?

Easy to read and hard to put down, McFarlane’s creative and cuddly concoction is a slow-burning, wry and funny love story with plenty of width and depth to keep the smartest and most demanding chick-lit readers hooked to the very last page.

With its pleasing mix of romance and reality and a seemingly bottomless store of hilarious one-liners, You Had Me at Hello is a welcome breath of fresh air to blow away the cobwebs of 2012.

(Avon, paperback, £6.99)