Book group questions for After I Left You

about to set off for the launch party
about to set off for the launch party

After I Left You is out there! The launch was held last week, on a beautiful moonlit evening in the garden at Mostly Books in Abingdon (you can read about it on the Mostly Books blog and the Abingdon blog). Now it’s on the shelves at independent bookshops, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and is also available from Amazon. In a couple of weeks’ time I’m due to do my very first book group talk about the book, with the book group at work.

I’ve had a think about questions that might be helpful for book groups who want to discuss the novel, and here they are. I don’t think there are any spoilers here, but you might want to wait until you’ve read it before you look through them – they will definitely make more sense then!

If you have read the book, I’d really welcome your thoughts. Do let me know if there are any other questions that you think would be useful, and if there are any you would particularly like to discuss with other readers – and also, of course, I would be very interested to know your responses!

If you’re in the Oxford area and your book group is going to be discussing AILY and you’d like me to come along and talk about the book, post a comment to let me know and let’s see if we can sort something out. Also, plans are shaping up for an event in north London next month – details to follow.

After I Left You on the Book Buzz shelf in Mostly Books
After I Left You on the Book Buzz shelf in Mostly Books

Discussion questions for After I Left You

What was your reaction to what happened to Anna on the night of the ball?

What are the fairytale elements of Anna’s story? What, or who, makes the fairytale go wrong?

Do you think it is possible to stay with your first love? What would happen if you bumped into your first love in a bookshop one day?

How are the different friendships in the story represented?

One of the key friendships in the novel is Anna’s friendship with Keith. How would you describe this friendship?

What other novels spring to mind that include a portrayal of a friendship between a man and a woman?

Who leaves who in the book? Which characters make peace with each other, and what does it take for this to happen?

By the end of the novel, what change has Anna experienced? How is she different to the beginning of the novel?

lucky nail varnish ready for the launch - wore it for  my Thames swim too!
lucky nail varnish ready for the launch – wore it for my Thames swim too!

What makes a great love story?

a romantic rose... plus thorns
a romantic rose… plus thorns

‘Reader, I married him.’ A great love story can end that way, but only after a load of trouble. As we know from Shakespeare, true love involves a rocky ride, in literature at least. A compelling romance must have drama; someone, or something, has to oppose it and try to stop it happening. And in a truly great love story, the threat to the lovers has to appear insurmountable. We want to believe that love can conquer all, but at some point in the story, it has to look horribly likely that love is going to lose.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars the stakes are sky-high from the outset; the forces ranged against the young lovers are depression, loneliness, illness and death. But that doesn’t stop the spark between them at that first meeting. If anything, it intensifies it.

True love is stubborn to a fault, and flourishes in the face of poor odds. It is also not sensible, convenient or rational. I can understand why Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice, I can even admire her pragmatism, but nobody would dream of describing their relationship as a great love story.


True love changes the lovers; in a really great love story, there will always be a transformation (or several). Take Romeo, who is teased by his friends at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet for moping around and pining for someone who isn’t even interested in him. He believes himself to be in love, but he doesn’t really know what it is. Then he meets Juliet and – kapow! – he is no longer a self-indulgent boy.

He is also no longer unrequited. Great love stories are never one-sided; there may be spells of confusion and separation and alienation – in fact, there almost certainly will be – but ultimately, the lovers will find some kind of equilibrium, even if this is only possible when they have lost their lives (think Wuthering Heights). They might not start off as equals, at least not in society’s eyes, but they have to end up that way, from the reader’s point of view if not the world’s.

Sparring, rivals and secrets

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite love stories, and had such a big impact on me that it crept into my very first novel, which I wrote as a child, without me even realising it. My story featured a burning house and a first wife tucked away somewhere, and it ended with a wedding. (I hope it’s not a spoiler to note that the quote at the beginning of this post – ‘Reader, I married him’ – is Jane’s.)

the end of my first-ever novel
the end of my first novel

Jane is Rochester’s employee and his social inferior, but she is not about to let him get away with anything. This leads to a fair amount of sparring, which he seems to quite enjoy – they are clearly comfortable with each other – but a series of increasingly deadly threats rise up to force them apart. Jane has a love rival: the beautiful, wealthy and heartless Blanche Ingram. And then there is the madwoman in the attic, and the revelation that forces Jane to flee. Lovers do not keep secrets from each other; any attempt to keep the past locked away out of sight is an enemy to love.

cover of After I Left You

In After I Left You, my new novel, Anna last said goodbye to Victor, her university boyfriend, seventeen years ago, and she has never told him the full story of the chain of events that led to her decision to cut off all contact with him. Something has silenced her, and she has lived a kind of half-life ever since.

When they meet again, her old feelings for him begin to return; but if she is to seize her chance of happiness, she is going to have to make the leap of faith that is always part of love, overcome her fears, give up her secret and speak out. Where there’s love there’s hope, and in any love story there is the possibility of transformation, and a question to be answered: will they or won’t they come together in the end?

A version of this post first appeared on the Diana Verlag blog. Diana Verlag is the publisher of the German edition of After I Left You.

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You
Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

After I Left You, nostalgia, old flames and the power of secrets

After I Left You fresh from the printers
After I Left You fresh from the printers

Some years ago, standing by the buffet at a family occasion, I witnessed a brief encounter between a middle-aged woman and an old flame. As they turned towards each other they both seemed to soften, and although the years didn’t quite fall away from them, it was possible to glimpse their younger selves.

I didn’t know anything about the history between them, but then, I didn’t really need to. It was a public moment that was also very private; it was quite clear that whatever was involved in that exchange was none of anybody else’s business.

Inevitably, the time came for them both to move on, and be reabsorbed into the social scene going on all around them, with its greetings and small talk and introductions and catchings-up; and it was almost, but not quite, as if whatever had passed between them had never been.

The hideous lilac bridesmaid’s dress

At the beginning of my new novel, After I Left You (out July 31), Anna, the heroine and narrator, has a similarly poignant conversation with Victor, her first love. Their paths cross in a London bookshop. She is not looking her best, having come in to shelter from the downpour outside; she is drenched, her hair is dripping, and she is carrying a hideous lilac bridesmaid’s dress over one arm. They talk, briefly, and part with much left unsaid.

The past may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.

For Anna, this meeting does more than stir up memories of love. She hasn’t seen Victor for 17 years; she cut off all contact with him and their group of friends from university when she left. He reminds her of times she would rather forget and the secret she has never told him, and she is not at all sure that she is ready to face up to the past.

But try as she might, she can’t keep away from it. Before long her story jumps back to the early 90s and she is eighteen again, arriving at university and meeting Victor for the first time. The novel moves between two timelines – her student days and her present – and gradually reveals exactly what it is that Victor doesn’t know.

my writing desk
at my writing desk

Back to the 90s…

That’s part of the power of secrets. Truth has a way of burrowing up to the surface, and a revelation can break down the distinction between then and now, and bring what happened years ago right into the spotlight of the present. The past can change us and change with us. It may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.

I’ve always loved the idea of time travel, and until someone finally invents a suitably modified DeLorean for real, novels are the closest we’ve got. Like Anna, I was a student in the early 90s, when it still seemed yuppie to have a mobile phone, only geeks had email and you left messages for people on a sheet of A4 blu-tacked to their door. (Very public.)

The Conservatives seemed to have been in forever, pub interiors were havens for smokers (and there were many of them), ciabatta and cappuccino were sophisticated novelties and if somebody made you a mixtape you knew they really liked you. It increasingly seems like another world, and working on After I Left You gave me the chance to revisit it.

When I was a student: my 20th birthday
When I was a student: my 20th birthday

I have since had the strange double experience of walking into a scene that I had already written about from Anna’s perspective. Earlier this year, I went to a college reunion. Mine was much less dramatic than Anna’s. There was no Hollywood glamourpuss having an illicit fag in the ladies’, and nobody ostentatiously flirting to provoke an ex-spouse, sobbing in the chapel, or dodging a confrontation in the bar. (Not as far as I know, anyway. I left at midnight.)

But, like Anna, I did find that in some ways twenty-odd years really don’t make a lot of difference. Everybody’s younger selves were still there, and became more visible the longer you looked. It was a vivid reminder that the past is always out there somewhere; chances are that sooner or later, whether you seek it out or not, you’re going to walk right into it.

off to a college reunion
off to a college reunion

A version of this blog post recently appeared on The Page Turners Facebook page.

The new cover of After I Left You

cover of After I Left You

After I Left You has a new look! This is the cover design for the paperback, which is due out at the end of July.

I hope you like it. I think it’s a beauty, and captures perfectly a certain kind of sunny afternoon, and the feeling of being free and happy in a golden place and time.

I have this song by George Ezra on the brain at the moment, and the lyrics seem at least partly apt: ‘Give me one good reason why I should never make a change…’

It’s interesting how cover designs can change over time. The initial cover for my first book, Stop the Clock, featured three pairs of legs, representing the three different characters; the career woman, the uber-mum, and the unassuming girl-next-door. This was good fun for me, as I got to help draw up the prop shopping list. In the end, though, it hit the shelves with a quite different look – the lady sipping coffee, reading her newspaper (probably checking out the column written by Tina, the career woman, which causes all sorts of problems when her friends think she is writing about them.)

Sometimes covers even feed into a book. There’s a scene in Julie Cohen’s excellent Dear Thing that involves a pair of baby shoes. Julie mentioned that she put the baby shoes into the book after she’d seen the cover design for the hardback, which featured someone holding a pair – it was too good a metaphor to miss!

BIG thank you to everyone who has said kind things about the cover of After I Left You – here are some of the comments – and thank you so much to everyone who has shared it. The response has been lovely and I’m really grateful.


The After I Left You tour of places in Oxford I love

Oxford's Bridge of Sighs
Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs, May morning, early 90s…

I was nervous about setting my new novel, After I Left You, in Oxford, but my editor talked me into it. It’s a challenge to write about a place you love without pretending that it’s somewhere else, especially if it’s very close to home.

In the end, I’m really glad Oxford’s in there. Books need to have avatars of things you feel strongly about in them. It’s as if the book digests your emotional attachments and translates them into something that is no longer personal, but is (hopefully) available to anybody who reads the story.

When I was a student: my 20th birthday
My 20th birthday in Oxford

I did fictionalise Oxford a little, and blurred some of its geography and landmarks. Here are ten things I love about Oxford and the surrounding countryside, and suggest you sample if you go there.

1. Pubs.

Alison Mercer at the Perch in Oxford
at the Perch in Oxford on a family day out

The Eagle and Child, The Turf and the Lamb and Flag are all lovely, the Perch and the Trout are vital stopping-off points on the Port Meadow walk (see 5), and I have fond memories of some of the Cowley pubs, including The Bullingdon Arms as was (last time I looked, it had turned into a nitespot with girls with shiny dresses.)

But my favourite of all is the King’s Arms, the inspiration for the Wickham Arms in After I Left You, ‘a city pub with a hall of fame of past patrons displayed on its dark green walls: poets, politicians, sporting heroes… captured in dim corners and on banquettes, their features both emphasized and softened by the shadowy, forgiving light.’

I’m pretty sure I had some Moments of Destiny in the King’s Arms. Anna certainly has one in the Wickham Arms in After I Left You.

2. Bookshops.

I love having tea and people-watching in Blackwell’s. There’s always someone nearby tapping importantly on a laptop: writing what? An essay, a novel, a thesis, an email to a lover or a longlost friend? I also love a browse in Waterstones, where I very nearly ended up working after I graduated (I ended up taking a job at the JR hospital instead, as a secretary in the IT department.)

3. Cafés.

My heart belongs to the Queen’s Lane café, which brings back memories of cutting class to eat carrot cake with the indie-music-loving, long-fringed boy of my dreams. My son, who has autism and a fascination for things that go round, loves Brown’s in the covered market for the ceiling fans.

4. Colleges.

Ox skyline

I first visited Oxford when I was 10 or 11. I was into dungeon-and-dragons style books at the time, where you had to choose which way to go and then turn to the page to find out if you’d arrived at treasure or a nasty imp. Oxford, with its cloisters and quadrangles and halls, struck me as being a made-up fantasy place like the kingdoms in the books, where anything could be lurking round the corner.

5. Port Meadow.

Port Meadow, Oxford
Port Meadow

6. The White Horse.

A friend who read a proof copy of After I Left You said she was waiting for the White Horse to turn up, and sure enough, a version of it does.

On the way back from visiting the ancient chalk landmark, the friends discuss the game of truth or dare they played when they first met, leading to this exchange, which is pretty much the set-up of the story in a nutshell:

‘No one went for truth, then,’ I said.

‘No,’ Clarissa agreed. ‘In the end, no one did,’ and she started the drive back to Oxford.

7. The river.

on the boat from Abingdon to Oxford

I love a walk through Christ Church meadows, and the Salter’s Steamers boat trip from Abingdon to Oxford.

In After I Left You, when Anna meets up with her friend Meg and looks through her photo album, she sees a snap of the friends together on a bench near the river: ‘there we all were, squeezed on to a bench overlooking the river on a frosty autumn morning, happy and complete and sure of ourselves, a pack surveying its territory’.

And here’s the cover of the German edition of After I Left You (out in June!) showing what I imagine to be the same bench years later.

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You
Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

If you go punting, in my experience, the trick is to find someone who knows what they’re doing and persuade them to do the punting bit, while you lounge around taking in the scenery and drinking something fizzy.

8. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Dinosaurs! Shrunken heads! Witchy stuff!

This is where we first meet Keith in After I Left You, ‘standing awkwardly in one of the dinosaur footprints… as if half attempting to strike a pose and half wanting just to get the photo over with.’

9. St Margaret’s Church and St Margaret’s Well.

An otherworldly place, along the lane from the Perch. The well inspired the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland and it’s the model for St. Bartholomew’s well in After I Left You, which is also in a churchyard:

A canopy of leaves sheltered the little congregation of the dead from the wind, the sun and the rain. It was as if we were already inside, if not a church, then some other protected space.

my daughter took this pic near Port Meadow

10. Bleinheim Palace.

It’s a magnificent building, but what I love most about Bleinheim is the view. In After I Left You, there’s a stately home called Shawcross Hall where Keith spends a happy summer showing tourists round the orangery, and where Anna is finally given the chance to confront the past.

I was so lulled by the sun and the champagne and the scent of grass and lavender and roses, and the gentle thud of elderly pop hits issuing from the grand house behind me, that I didn’t even jump when I heard footsteps and realized that someone was about to find me.

What happens next? After I Left You is out in paperback in July and will be available from all good bookstores – but if you can’t wait till then, it’s available for Kindle and in other ebook formats now (click on ‘buying options’ to see the different available formats.)

the cover of After I Left YouSomething else I love about Oxfordshire, which you can’t help but notice wherever you are, is that it has such big and beautiful skies.

Oxfordshire sky, as seen from our house
Oxfordshire sky, as seen from our house


Ebook publication day for After I Left You

Today is the ebook publication day for After I Left You. We have just celebrated with Waitrose passion cake and cups of tea. It feels strange… but lovely. It’s out!

You can buy After I Left You from Amazon and find out about other ebook formats from the Transworld website (click on buying options to see a list of suppliers). And here I am reading the first page.

The black bars are censoring the background mess in my house… No, not really – my other half and I recorded this last night using our new camera and we are on a bit of a learning curve! It took two minutes to film and rather longer to manage to upload! I hope it whets your appetite and leaves you wanting to find out what happens next.

Have ignored the rain, paused for thought and *swooned*. Gorg... on Twitpic

After I Left You ebook first! Publication update

summer holiday reading
Will After I Left You be your summer holiday reading?

OK, people, here’s the news: the publication date for the paperback of my next novel, After I Left You, has been moved back to July 2014 − BUT the ebook will be published at the end of January.

So if you love your Kindle or e-Reader, you’ll have a long head start. If you prefer a paperback, the timing could be just right for you to take After I Left You on your summer holiday…

Isn’t reading a big part of the joy of going on holiday? In the above pic I’m deep in John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy while on a boat holiday (check my 80s hairdo –  I was a teenager). One of my best holiday reads ever was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the one and only time I got some winter sun. I’ll always associate that book with the luxury of escaping from Britain in January.

After I Left You: ebook in January, paperback in July

Sometimes there are changes late in the day in the world of publishing – it’s just how it goes. If you were looking forward to getting your hands on the paperback of After I Left You, I promise you it will be worth the wait! I love paperbacks myself – I spend a lot of my time staring at screens, so it feels like a treat to read a story in this format. It does mean we have stacks of books everywhere, but I kind of like that too – I’d miss them if they weren’t around.

In the end, the paperback of After I Left You will have a much better chance of reaching as many readers as possible as a summertime book. Still, I’m really pleased that the ebook is coming out at the end of January and if this is the way that you like to read, I hope you’ll try it, love it and recommend it! There is nothing like word of mouth!

You can see a range of suppliers for both the paperback and ebook of After I Left You on the website of Transworld, my brilliant publishers (have a look round, they have lots of fantastic authors and I’m very lucky to be in such good hands).

If you’d prefer to read the paperback, it should be stocked by all good bookstores, including local independents.  Independent bookshops such as Mostly Books in Abingdon are brilliant at ordering books in – I did my Christmas shopping at Mostly Books by sending an email with a long list and picked them up from the shop the next day. Mostly Books is also happy to post books to you.

Books Are My Bag
Outside Mostly Books in Abingdon. Books Are My Bag!

You can also pre-order the paperback of After I Left You or the ebook from Amazon.

What people have said so far about After I Left You…

Other writers have made some lovely comments about After I Left You. Alice Peterson, author of Monday to Friday Man (which knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the Kindle no 1 spot!) had this to say about it: ‘A lovely absorbing read, so evocative of student life. Alison Mercer really captures the passion of falling in love for the first time.’  Tamar Cohen, author of The Mistress’s Revenge, said, ‘Alison Mercer has expertly spun an engrossing story about love, secrets and second chances.’

You’ll also find a couple of lovely reader reviews on Goodreads. These readers won proof copies of After I Left You in a giveaway and I was really pleased they enjoyed it. At the risk of coming over all Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars, or at least sounding a bit corny, I found it very emotional to write, so it’s lovely when readers respond to that.

I’ll be posting sneak peeks of After I Left You on my Facebook page in the run-up to the publication of the ebook. Right – now I have to crack on with writing the next one!

After I Left You becomes Und dann, eines Tages

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You
Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

The German edition of After I Left You comes out in summer 2014, and it’s called Und dann, eines Tages. I love the cover design the publisher, Diana Verlag, has come up with – it refers to a specific scene in the book, as you’ll see when you get to it, but you don’t need to know this to pick up what the image suggests.

Just before Christmas I got a fantastic treat in the post: the Diana Verlag May to October 2014 catalogue. Their edition of After I Left You is on the cover and looking beautiful on a double-page spread inside.

Diana Verlag catalogue cover
Diana Verlag catalogue with Und dann, eines Tages on the cover

Once upon a time someone – perhaps several someones, friends or lovers – sat on that bench underneath that beautiful tree.  Who were they, what happened to them, and where did they go?

Diana Verlag catalogue page
All about Und dann, eines Tages in the Diana Verlag catalogue

The catalogue describes the novel as ‘about first love and the years that follow’. The story opens with Anna sheltering from the rain in a London bookshop and bumping into Victor, her first love from her university days. She hasn’t seen him for seventeen years. This chance encounter is destined to change Anna’s life, but first both of them will have to face up to the secrets of her past.

Other writers have made some lovely comments about the novel. Alice Peterson, author of Monday to Friday Man (which knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the Kindle no 1 spot!) had this to say about it: ‘A lovely absorbing read, so evocative of student life. Alison Mercer really captures the passion of falling in love for the first time.’  Tamar Cohen, author of The Mistress’s Revenge, said, ‘Alison Mercer has expertly spun an engrossing story about love, secrets and second chances.’

I am so pleased that the novel is being translated for German readers, and I really hope they will love it.

I’ve just been on a hunt through some old photographs to find a snap from a trip I made to Berlin back in 2000 – here it is!

Alison Mercer in Berlin
In Berlin back in 2000

I thought it was a wonderful city, full of energy and busily rebuilding itself. It was also very friendly, and there were plenty of quirky little bars – I’m in one of them in this picture.

At that time, there was a huge amount of construction and renovation work going on in Berlin – you’d walk along a row of houses and one would be awaiting restoration, the next would be covered in scaffolding and the third would be gleaming and good as new. There was very little evidence of when you were passing into the former East Berlin, apart from the bright pink overhead pipes that were used to carry cables, and, as I remember, the flat cap and pipe sported by the little green man on the pedestrian crossing signs.

I don’t know anything much about architecture, but I remember the Reichstag building as one of the most beautiful and impressive I’ve ever visited – there’s something very powerful about being able to look down and see politicians toiling away underneath your feet! You can see a video of it here.

The visit made me wish that I’d found some way to live in Berlin in the late 90s, and spent a little less time in London! I very much hope to visit Germany again one day.

The cover of After I Left You

After I Left You cover
The cover of After I Left You

Here it is – the cover of my new book, After I Left You, due out in Jan 2014 from Black Swan.

I’ve posted it on Twitter and Facebook and have had a really lovely response – even the chaps seem to like it! I appreciate this so much, as this is a peculiarly, irrationally nerve-racking moment. It’s the tipping point at which the book begins to shift definitively from being mine − something that sits quietly on my computer − to being yours (I hope), in your hands. It’s not quite the top of the helter-skelter ride that is publication; that will come in January next year – but it’s well on the way up.

Lisa Horton, the designer, has put a lot of thought and ingenuity into this cover. You can see Oxford in the background, and that’s perfect because that’s where a lot of the story is set, and where the lovers met back in the day. And you can see straight away that all hasn’t turned out blissfully well for these two – well, for most university couples it doesn’t, does it? But who knows, maybe that could change…

I really love the torn photo in this design. It makes me think of a box I have tucked away that has various bits and pieces of memorabilia in it: 20-year-old letters, postcards, and yes, a few photos. I have a hunch that most women have an equivalent to that box somewhere. (Men too?) I don’t look in it, but I know it’s there, like a time capsule.

(The box that Tina uses for Justin’s letters in Stop the Clock is the same kind of thing, but doesn’t quite manage to stay out of sight – I won’t say any more about that though, in case you haven’t read it. Spoilers are BAD, as my husband recently reminded me when I dropped a clanger about Game of Thrones.)

Here’s the copy my editor at Transworld, Harriet Bourton, has written to introduce After I Left You: 

Every broken heart has a history

Anna hasn’t been back to Oxford since her last summer at university, seventeen years ago. She tries not to think about her time there, or the tightly knit group of friends she once thought would be hers forever. She has almost forgotten the sting of betrayal, the heartache, the secret she carries around with her, the last night she spent with them all.

Then a chance meeting on a rainy day in London brings her past tumbling back into her present, and Anna is faced with the memories of that summer and the people she left behind. As Anna realises that the events of their past have shaped the people they’ve all become, hope begins to blossom for what her future could hold…

An absorbing, powerful novel of love and friendship that will sweep you away

from the very first page.

Praise for Alison Mercer’s debut novel, Stop the Clock

‘This is grown-up chick-lit at its very best’ Closer

‘Funny and moving, this is a fab debut’ new!

‘Mercer has a satirical eye which she puts to good effect . . . A funny, promising debut’ Daily Mail

After I Left You is available for pre-order from the publisher, Transworld.

More about After I Left You

The two types of love story and After I Left You

Aphrodite, by my daughter

Here’s a narrative rule about love stories (but rules are made to be broken) – they usually work in one of two ways:

1.)    The romance. Boy meets girl, or man meets woman, but they are separated by apparently insurmountable obstacles: pride and prejudice, for example, or social inequality and a mad wife in the attic. Eventually the obstacles are overcome and the couple are united. Jane Eyre is my favourite example of this kind of story – it’s my Ur-romance, the one I read first.

2.)    Is the inverse of 1.) The couple come together some time before the end, and the drive of the story, as it turns out, is towards separation, as insurmountable obstacles come between the lovers and force them apart.

It can be (should be?) hard to tell which kind of story you’re reading till the very last page. Both use your uncertainty and doubt, and the suspense that creates, to hook you in and pull you through. Will they or won’t they?

My second novel, After I Left You, uses two timelines to give the same two people two different love stories. In the present, they meet long after the end of their relationship; many years earlier, they encounter each other for the first time. It’s not will they or won’t they, so much as: why can’t she (or shouldn’t she)? It’s not due to be published till January 2014, though, so if that’s piqued your curiosity, there’s a bit longer to wait to see how it turns out in the end.

Love and un-love, from Casablanca to Gone Girl

I have been told that readers, and viewers, like conclusive endings, and I think that is true, but some stories make a virtue out of uncertainty. Gone with the Wind is an obvious example: will-they-or-won’t-they remains as a final hope, a grace note, conferring a tentative immortality on the sparring lovers by raising the possibility that they may one day rebound together yet again.

Here are some other classic films that fall into the second type (where the lovers fall apart rather than together):

  1. Casablanca. Here the obstacle is War, the epic backdrop against which the troubles of three people don’t amount to more than a hill of beans. But as far as we’re concerned, of course, the individuals are epic, and the war is reduced to a horizon line, its details smoothed and miniaturised by distance.
  2. Brief Encounter. Surely one of the most heartbreaking of love stories. Here the lovers are up against not just society and its values, but also their own morality – the imperative to be good and sad rather than bad and briefly, selfishly happy. I agree wholeheartedly with Zadie Smith’s assertion, in a review published in her essay collection Changing My Mind, about what makes this film so distinctively English: when the couple decide they must part, most of their agonising final encounter is given over to politely passing the time of day with a busybody acquaintance. There really is no escaping other people.
  3. Love Story. Girl meets boy, they fall in love; then she gets sick. There is nothing like definitive loss to define what has been lost.

Every love story needs opposition – whether it’s war, ill health, other people, death – to tell us what love is. But love can be so mixed up with un-love (separation, isolation, anger, fear) that it is difficult to tell them apart. Gone Girl (which might more accurately be called a hate story than a love story) gets plenty of mileage out of our instinctive understanding of this: what possibilities lurk in the un-love we might prefer not to acknowledge?

When I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, our teacher pointed out how shrewd Shakespeare was to introduce a Romeo who professed to be in love with some other random girl, and was teased by his friends for being pathetic about it. When Juliet comes along we are in no doubt that this is suddenly the real thing. It’s mutual, for a start. It’s eloquent (it speaks in sonnets). The lovers are inspired, and transformed… but the odds are stacked up against them, in direct proportion to the strength of their feelings.

A blood feud is certainly an unpromising beginning to in-law relations. Not to mention the dawn that brings the lark and not the nightingale, the charm that works all too well, the message that fails to meet its destination, and, ultimately, mortality, the conclusion that waits to sever all lovers in the end (though in art at least, even that can be overcome).

What do we talk about when we talk about love?

Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a brilliantly concise, and oblique, answer to the questions that all love stories ask: what is love, really, and how do we know when it’s real?  The story introduces two couples, who are going to discuss the subject for us by invoking the stories of other couples, all the while knocking back stacks of booze.

First up is Terri, who is, as her husband Mel says, a romantic ‘of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school’. Terri describes an ex who beat her up one night: ‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, I love you, I love you, you bitch… what do you do with love like that?’ Terri is convinced this was love – ‘he was willing to die for it. He did die for it,’ but Mel is not so sure: ‘I’m not interested in that kind of love… If that’s love, you can have it.’

So then it’s Mel’s chance to have his say. What does he talk about when he talks about love? Well – I urge you to read the whole story to find out (it’s only 13 pages long), but here’s a taster: ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it… But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did. I know I did… How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone would tell me.’

Also, if you haven’t yet, read (or re-read) James Joyce’s short story The Dead, about another lost love. See where it ends. See where the promise of love can take you. And see if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck.