“All you need is love,” a certain well-known English band once sang. But love is not enough to hold together every story of British love. It forms the background behind John Toomey’s book “Huddleston Road,” but here, Toomey haphazardly brings together a pair of young adults with no rhyme or reason. The underdeveloped main characters Vic and Lali seem like clichéd stand-in actors from typical dramas. Toomey attempts to portray a deep and flawed emotional connection between Vic and Lali, but mostly fails at establishing any sort of realism.
Vic is an Irish school teacher living in London when he falls for Lali, a mesmerizing coffee-shop owner. She is initially just a “graceful flicker” in his periphery, and her initial indifference to him only adds to her mystery. He soon realizes she is emotionally unstable, with moods that switch from gregarious to withdrawn, all with a mean undercurrent. For some reason, unexplained by Toomey, these mood swings are attractive and even love-inducing. The first half of the story follows the fledgling relationship in London, but the couple’s tale will probably fail to affect the reader emotionally. Toomey refrains from even giving the reader a physical description of either of the lovers. Lali is some sort of foreign beauty and Vic is freckled, but beyond these basic descriptions, Toomey fails to provide any sense of unique interest for the reader in his couple.
There is a constant sense of something missing while reading the novel. Toomey attempts to give the reader a sense of Lali’s background and personality by introducing her grandmother, who comes across as an amalgamation of Mrs. Potts from “Beauty and the Beast” and the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey.” Yet the flow of adjectives simply describes Lali’s negative attributes. The book also lacks an introspective analysis of Vic and his reason for staying with an unappreciative and cruel woman, besides her beauty.
Inexplicable love may work under the right circumstances, but the tactic as a literary trope falls flat here because its inexplicability is never addressed. One of Toomey’s few attempts to understand Vic’s psyche is hopelessly convoluted. “Having heard now, the history of her, and appreciating the scope and significance of her amorphous suffering,” he writes, “he found that it militated against his more extreme emotional reactions—frustration and contempt.” Toomey appears to have simply surveyed contemporary clichés and pulled out what was most trendy: an unattainable manic pixie dream girl.
The book has a constant feeling of missing its core. The foundations of their relationship are so shaky that by the time Lali and Vic buy a house and have a child, none of their story feels real. Thus when Vic begins questioning his commitment, the desired emotional response from a reader is absent. The resonance of emotional goodbyes falls flat, and it just becomes another piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit.
The second half of the book, once Vic comes to the realization that “love wasn’t enough,” is much more realistic. Vic’s indiscretions with fellow teachers, his truly endearing love for his daughter, and his utter loneliness and confusion about his future are portrayed with refreshing introspection and gravity. His reflection on his relationship with Lali forms the majority of his thoughts. He realizes that “he never caught on, never learned to mistrust her good turns as much as her bad.”
In this latter narrative, Toomey sets a tone of self-aware irony. There are multiple instances where he appears to be poking fun at his writing and knowingly chiding his clichéd characters: “’She’s a myth…all girls like that are. Your desire for her is rooted in some unattainable fantasy.’” When Vic finds a poem in Lali’s things, he deems it “pedestrian in its wretchedness, completely predictable in its melancholy.” These descriptions could easily apply to the first half of the novel. This last section of the book, though at times tedious, is touching and almost makes up for the lackluster first part. Vic’s self-reflection is satisfyingly real and relatable. “It was often the most beautiful things that saddened her,” he recalls. “Whenever he thought of it, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that her fate had been coming from a long way out; an inner poison pollinated in her soul; flowering like her own lethal beauty.”
“Huddleston Road” is full of too many clichés and explores only the surface of its characters, but the end is touching regardless of Toomey’s portrayal of Vic and Lali. The love of their relationship comes across artfully, but the underlying motivations behind it are absent. Their story lacks a unique personal element. It is this element that separates a vapid screenplay from a profound narrative. Toomey’s patchwork attempt at portraying a modern couple is far too shallow; the novel is only partially redeemed by his surprisingly astute description, near the end of the novel, of life after love.
—Staff writer Charlotte M. Kreger can be reached at email@example.com.