The Unfriended by Jane McLoughlin

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The Unfriended by Jane McLoughlin

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: A thoughtful, up-close-and-personal interwoven tale of the lives of four very different women.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 340 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Quartet Books
ISBN: 978-0704373945

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The Unfriended lays its cards out on the table right from the first page: this is a novel all about feminism. It's going to have those conversations, and it's going to deliver some opinions, and it's not going to apologise for doing so.

Four young women arrive at Trinity College Dublin to start their time there as undergraduates. Right from the first page it's obvious that the chances of them all getting along are slim – particularly as they will all be sharing one room – but prim-and-proper Ellie quickly opines that they will simply have to make the best of it.

It's not the most original set-up ever, and has a slightly Sex and the City-ish vibe about it. In fact, the more I think about that comparison, the more apt it feels. SATC was all about tackling the question of whether there was anything else an educated woman could hope to achieve beyond marriage and children, and it explored this idea using the various aspects of the modern female: romantic, sexual, ambitious, and traditional. The Unfriended takes a similar approach, using the backdrop of the 1960s to illustrate the choices available to a new breed of young women, who quickly learn that they have options available to them that no generation before them ever did.

This theme is carried throughout really well, and the book doesn't shy away from raising various different issues – some that relate to feminism, some that don't – in an uncompromising way. Ffion and Ellie bicker constantly over the idea that a woman's sole purpose in life is to give birth to the next generation – You're not whole until you're a mother! – and whether an intelligent woman who willingly chooses marriage and motherhood can be seen to have wasted the opportunities available to her. Very few punches are pulled. It's almost unpleasantly honest in places.

Ffion was my favourite character by far. Totally unapologetic, totally unrelenting. There's no nice way of saying she was a total bitch, so there you have it. I loved the way she stood by her convictions and never, ever backed down; even when she was totally in the wrong you couldn't help but side with her, just a little. I found her story to be the most predictable of the four women, but it didn't make me like her any less: characters like her are hard to do well, but McLoughlin manages to pull it off.

The secondary cast aren't greatly fleshed out, though, which makes it hard to care (or even remember) about them. Thankfully, not a lot of time is spent on them, but I often found myself struggling to recall anything about a character or why it would be worth doing so.

There's also a few plot points that jar with the time period and setting. One scene near the end of the novel mentions Google, and the very next page mentions the date to be 1990 – hang on, Google wasn't invented until 1996! I had to suspend my disbelief at the idea of Hilary suddenly becoming a respected journalist, too – hardly a common or easy feat for a woman in the 70s, even with the opportunities afforded to them by this point. It's little details like that which brought me out of the story and spoil the setting McLoughlin obviously knew a lot about.

The Unfriended falls short of being a biting social commentary, but it's not a fluff novel, either. It's not one for everyone's taste, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it especially for those who, like me, are interested in reading more Irish fiction. A great read.

My thanks to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag for review.

For a similar but slightly warmer flavour, you might enjoy The House on Willow Street by Cathy Kelly. It's a feel-good story focusing around four women, also set in Ireland.

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