I first met Paula Harrold when she was a pink-haired Oxford theology student who decorated her bedroom wall with a large scythe. I never expected her to write a romantic comedy.
She has now done just that, but it’s not your typical romance. The will-they-won’t-they couple in question are Father Daniel O’Reilly, a dead Catholic priest, and one of his parishioners, Mildred, also dead. The action takes place mostly in heaven, with a brief trip to hell and a ghostly return to Earth. Mildred is searching for her lost love, Tom, and Daniel helps her, while developing an unexpected crush.
It’s an entertaining read, and the unusual premise breathes fresh life into a genre I don’t normally have much interest in. It also gives plenty of room for interesting speculation about the nature of religion and the afterlife, which is really well handled. Some of it’s purely humorous, and some of it’s really thought-provoking.
I particularly liked the way hell is handled – since Jesus washed away our sins, nobody can be sent there any more, but some choose to go anyway to atone for their misdeeds. I found the image of isolated men crying for centuries in an almost deserted hell to be quite powerful. There are also some great observations on the doctrinal differences between different religions/sects, and how none of them has the “right” answer but none are wrong either.
As I was reading the book, I actually thought it would work well as a play. Because it’s set largely in heaven, a lot of the scenes are in fairly blank, static locations that feel like empty stage sets. The plot also moves forward largely through dialogue rather than action, as Daniel and Mildred navigate their way through heaven and hell, being told by angels and demons how things work. This kind of explication sometimes felt long-winded in a novel, but I could see it working well on-stage, particularly because there’s plenty of humour.
The main thing I don’t like about romance is the predictability: once boy meets girl, it’s a matter of time before they get it on, and the two people involved have to be incredibly dense and/or romantically inept to avoid getting together too early. I tend to find the constant prolonging of the inevitable quite frustrating, and just want them to get on with it.
This wasn’t so much of a problem in this particular book, because of all the other stuff going on. It’s a romance at heart, but along the way you can also ponder the nature of heaven, or purgatory, or laugh at the concept of angels going on strike, or follow a sub-plot in which a demon who followed Lucifer into the pit of hell still pines for his love who stayed in heaven. Nevertheless, I did find myself frustrated sometimes and wanting them to get on with it, and I did predict the ending quite early on, much earlier than any of the characters, even those with divine powers.
In places the book could also have benefited from editing to make it tighter (even the characters often complain about conversations going on too long!), but overall I found this a fresh, humorous take on a tired genre, and the imaginative take on the afterlife made up for the sometimes slow-moving romantic elements.
Note: I believe there is no physical edition of this book – it’s only available on Kindle.
There are 8 comments
Hi Andrew, I wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the review; not only is it detailed and thoughtful…it’s at least quadrupled any Internet presence to which I can lay claim!
Seems fair comment, all. I was worried that as a self-published book I had no professional editor; the upside of that being I could include whatever I wanted. The downside is, of course, the very same! It’s hard to know when you’re just being self-indulgent without an objective voice in the mix.
Having heard your opinion of romance writers back in ‘On the Holloway Road’, I have to say, I thought you’d like it a lot less – though I guess there can be little doubt here that I haven’t sold out for the money. (50 Shades of Grey it’s not, sales-wise…nor any other-wise, so that’s a state of affairs I can live with!)
Did we really meet for the first time on the trip to France? Also, I now have a much cooler scythe on my dining room wall.
Is ‘AVirtual Love’ out yet? We should meet up after I’ve read it. Let’s confirm nearer the time 😉
You’re welcome! It’s true that I’m not a fan of romance – though all that stuff in On the Holloway Road was strictly Jack’s opinion, of course! As I think came across in my review, it was the more romance-y parts that didn’t work so well for me, but there was so much more that I really liked, so overall it worked out with a positive balance!
Glad to hear you’ve upgraded to a new model of scythe. It’s one of the problems we all had in our student days – cheap scythes. I was trying to remember when we met, but those years are a bit of a blur to me. I thought I’d met you before we went to France, but couldn’t swear to it. I think alcohol was involved, though.
A Virtual Love is out on 1st April. Yes, seriously. Would be great to meet after if not before. I’m sure that with several dozen emails and texts we can work something out.
As you allude top this sounds very original as well as a fun read.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but a lighthearted story, set in the afterlife, with some meaty underlying themes, about a search for someone, and with a lot of dialog, reminds me a bit of Aristophanes “The Frogs”.
Thanks for the comment. I haven’t read The Frogs, but from the synopsis it does sound quite similar. The style of writing would be pretty different I’d imagine, as this book is quite contemporary and informal in register, but the plots sound very similar. Good spot! I’ll see if I can find a copy of The Frogs to read.
I like the sound of this very much! And that’s as someone who doesn’t mind reading romance, often enjoying it, but completely understanding your issues with the genre. I can see your staging idea well, few props needed, and those sorts of plays often work better than ones with more set design. I love the idea of people choosing to go to hell to atone, it sounds at once comic, sad, and rather poignant.
The part in hell was quite poignant, yes. If you like romance I think you’d enjoy this. It’s more comedy than romance, and humour’s never far away, but there are some good themes too and it’s quite moving. Hope you enjoy it if you do end up reading!
Nice review, Andrew! I would love to read this book, but I am resisting the Kindle still and so will have to wait till I cross that line. The premise of the book is quite interesting with its unconventional love story. I also loved what Paula said in her comment, especially about confirming nearer time 🙂
You’re still resisting? Good for you, Vishy. I still prefer paper as well. The Kindle has been useful for me this year because Barbados only has a few bookshops and the selection is quite limited. But if I was still in London I don’t think I’d use it much.