Title: Stay With Me
Author: Maureen McCarthy
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
This has been a book that I first requested for review over a year ago. And I really can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to read and to review. This is an Australian author, and what first made me interested in this book was the plot. I have only ever read one other book by McCarthy, and I didn’t remember particularly enjoying it so I was a little worried when starting this one. But, I was pleasantly surprised, because for the most part this book was enjoyable, well written, and a good read. I had a few issues, but I mostly enjoyed it.
Stay With Me follows Tess, a 21-year-old who decides to take her daughter and leave her abusive husband. With the help of a near stranger Harry, they embark on a road trip from Byron Bay to Melbourne, to reconnect with the family she hasn’t spoken to in years. This is a story that deals with abuse, family, and grief, and I think it was rather well done and had quite a unique story that I haven’t come across very often in YA.
One of my biggest problems with this book was Tess herself. She was not an easy character to like, and I definitely did not like Tess. I thought she made some very stupid decisions, and every time she did it just pushed me further away from her because I just could not understand why she was doing what she was doing. There’s nothing worse than reading a book with a truly frustrating character, and I just couldn’t think of Tess in any other way. Tess is the kind of character who has had a rather tough upbringing, and in particular the years with her abusive husband were definitely not her best. And I know that as a reader I was supposed to sympathise with her and understand that her history of abuse affected her behaviour a lot, but I just couldn’t, and I think because I didn’t like the narrator of this story, I ultimately didn’t enjoy this book as much as I could have.
Apart from the obvious of hating her abusive husband, for the most part I really enjoyed the rest of the characters we met. Harry was such a sweet guy, but his tragic backstory added to a lot of characters with tragic backstories and it was maybe a little too much. I absolutely loved Tess’s siblings. They all had such strong, unique voices, and once they came into the story I really began to enjoy my reading experience with this book. As for Nellie, Tess’s daughter, I feel like her inquisitive and curious nature was supposed to create some comedic relief for what was otherwise a very serious book with incredibly serious themes, but I kind of felt a little off in my feelings towards her too. I know she was only three (or close to that as I can’t exactly remember), but at times I just thought that she was incredibly bratty and childish, and I just didn’t enjoy reading about those moments. Other times I thought she was acting much older than she should have been. It was this weird contrast that I never felt was actually how I felt a three year old should be like.
I mostly liked McCarthy’s writing style. I think her pacing was a little off at times, but she had some nice descriptions and I think she did an excellent job of offsetting a book that deals with some very heavy themes with some lighthearted family moments.
Plot wise I thought this book had its ups and downs. I really enjoyed the road trip element of the novel. This road trip travelled throughout my state New South Wales, and so it was nice to recognise the place names as Tess, Harry and Nellie travelled to Melbourne. In fact, a town ten minutes away from me was mentioned, and a town ten minutes away from the place I used to live was also mentioned, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a book where places that close to my location are mentioned. I know this is a small thing, but it kind of is exciting to know where they’re talking about. Apart from the road trip I really loved the part where Tess was reconnecting with her family. I think McCarthy did an excellent job of showcasing the realness of the situation of reconnecting with family. It felt raw, and honest, and heartbreakingly real as all the siblings tried to forgive and forget the moments from their past.
I think the plot of this book tried to achieve a lot. And it did, but I think it kind of dragged at times. McCarthy from memory is an author that likes to incorporate the past with the present, and this was no different in this book. Tess’s history was slowly revealed to us in moments that kind of just felt a little disjointed at times. Her history was pivotal to the story, but I just think it felt awkward and clumsy and as if it could have been presented a little cleaner.
Another underlying factor that kind of links to this is the storyline of the mental illness that ran in Tess’s ancestors. Honestly, I really did not understand why this was important, and I don’t really feel like this added anything to the story. Apart from this storyline being mentioned by our range of characters, it was also presented to us with notes and case files every once and awhile, and I just think this made this element of the story overdone and unnecessary. I really didn’t connect with the crazy ancestor part of this story, and I honestly don’t see why it needed to be included.
My only other problem with the writing stemmed with the ending. Honestly, it was just rushed and a little chaotic as suddenly a whole lot was going down and it just kind of didn’t make much sense. It kind of was a little anticlimactic, and ultimately I was just over it, and I didn’t really care with how it was going to end.
I know this review makes it sound like I had a lot of issues with this book, and yeah, all of the above was a little annoying, but in the general scheme of things I still rather enjoyed this book. The issues I did have were not issues I held onto for the book, and so I was able to find some positives and like it for the most. I think this is a book that is definitely for older readers of the YA genre, but otherwise I think it is a book that most people would enjoy and appreciate for it’s different voice in a world of YA that seemingly follows the same tropes. I really loved the spectacular family moments this book provided, and due to this and the other things I enjoyed my overall rating for this book is 3 out of 5 stars. I definitely would recommend it, and I think I would recommend it knowing that I seem to be a minority in my opinions compared to other more positive reviews that I have read.
A big thanks you to Allen & Unwin for sending me a copy to review. My sincerest apologies for taking a year to actually get around to reading it.