I enjoyed If I Never Met You so much that I knew I was going to read another book by Mhairi McFarlane very soon. And it didn't take long before I picked up Don't You Forget About Me (2019). I was not disappointed. McFarlane is on top of my list of favorite romance authors at the moment.
Lucas and Georgina were high school sweethearts. Their burgeoning love is catalogued in the first chapter, and it is so sweet and innocent. The two are put together for a project at school, and Georgina slowly comes to appreciate the quiet, solitary kid she hadn't really noticed before. But she is not immune to peer pressure. Still trying to fit in with the "in crowd," she prefers to keep their relationship secret. Until finally at their sixth form prom, an incident, pride, and misunderstandings split the two up, and they go their separate ways.
Now Georgina is thirty and her life is going nowhere. She's just been fired as a waitress at an Italian restaurant with no repeat customers, her egomaniacal boyfriend has just cheated on her, and her roommate hates her. Then her brother-in-law helps her get a gig bartending at a newly opened bar. Devlin is the owner, and he is a fantastic boss. But then she meets Devlin's brother and co-owner of the bar--her old flame Lucas McCarthy. Amazingly, Lucas does not recognize her, and Georgina continues to work at the bar. It's odd and a little awkward as these two get to know the adult versions of themselves.
There's a lot going on in this book, and I'm amazed that McFarlane was able to make it all work. Georgina is dealing with grief and regret from her father's death, the incident back in high school, and the lingering sadness of losing Lucas McCarthy. In addition, her sister and mother act like she can't do anything right, and her mother's new husband is a raging asshole. Georgina also has a crew of three best friends that help round out her life. We know less about Lucas except that he and his brother own a number of successful bars. We discover that he was married, and learn more about that relationship as the book progresses.
The romance is a very slow burn. The two go from pretending they don't know each other, to slowly accepting each other as co-workers to possibly more, but it takes most of the book. There's also a lot more than romance going on with everything else Georgina is dealing with. It's so well written that I was interested in all aspects of Georgina's life.
Trigger/spoiler warning: Although this is hinted at from the beginning, the incident that tears Georgina and Lucas apart in high school involves sexual assault. The popular kid pulls Georgina away from the party and forces her to give him a hand job in a bathroom stall. He goes after more, but she is able to get away. This did not feel like an easy plot point thrown in for the sake of the later romance. The incident and its consequences were fully explored and felt very realistic. Georgina was vulnerable, willing to please, and unaware of how quickly her so-called friends could hurt her. Her stunned reaction made perfect sense in the moment, and her later recounting of it made me cry.
Looking over this review, I'm afraid I've focused on the more serious aspects of the novel when this book is very often hilarious. Jokes and funny situations abound and Georgina and Lucas are very likable characters. In fact, the most unrealistic part of this novel is that people like Georgina and Lucas actually exist--let alone are single. I loved this book, and I will be exploring more of McFarlane's books soon.
"To be honest, a lot of counseling appears to be accepting you're up to your tits in shit and finding you're zen about it." (94)
"Here's what life has taught me so far: don't worry about that thing you're worrying about. Chances are, it'll be obliterated by something you didn't anticipate that's a million times worse." (149)
"I didn't have the vocabulary to repel this boy, and I didn't have the vocabulary to explain what had happened to me." (386)
"So I reach out into the past, take the hand of that vulnerable, hopeful girl I used to be, and pull her forward to join me." (408)