I was feeling “a mite poorly” all week, and this book pretty much kept me going. Last Chance Saloon is a delightful contemporary British romance. It’s a lighter read than Keyes’ previous novel, Rachel’s Holiday, but not quite as daffy as her earlier works, Watermelon and Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married.
Three friends from a small Irish town have lived in London for the past 12 years. Kathleen leads a quiet, orderly existence as an accountant for an advertising agency. She’s happy on her own, believing that romantic relationships only lead to pain. Tara shares a flat with her boyfriend, Thomas, and works as a computer analyst. Thomas is an opinionated cheapskate who constantly badgers Tara about her weight, but hey, it’s better than being single and she really does love him (she just doesn’t like him very much). Of the three, Fintan is the happiest, with a fashion design career and a caring partner.
While Tara rationalizes her unsatisfying relationship with Thomas, and Katherine uses her best Ice Queen attack to fend off the attention of a perfectly nice co-worker, Fintan is suddenly faced with a life-threatening situation. Now Tara and Katherine have to take a hard look at their comfortable but ultimately unfulfilling lives. Do they have the courage to make changes and take risks?
Unlike Keyes’ previous novels, Last Chance Saloon is written in third-person narrative, allowing the author frequent point of view changes and highlighting the contrast between Tara and Kathleen. Tara is so insecure that she is willing to stay with a man who lavishes far more affection on his odious cat than he does on her. She constantly makes excuses for his tactlessness, stinginess and cruelty. To cover up her growing anxieties, she compulsively eats and shops. Her passivity is annoying, but it’s hard to dislike her because she’s such a good friend to Fintan and Katherine.
I really enjoyed getting to know Katherine. Unlike many ditzy British heroines, she is calm, organized and financially solvent. You know there is a good reason why she comes across as cool and tight-assed (the other face of insecurity), but you don’t discover its origins until the end of the novel. Still, you can’t help rooting for her because of the occasional glimpses of humor she displays and her sincere concern for her friends. And what a luscious man she finally ends up with - a basically decent guy who pursues the object of his affection despite the obstacles she constantly throws in his path. When Katherine finally lets her hair down, Keyes captures perfectly that excitement of a great first date and the dreamy stages of a new romance.
Occasionally Keyes narrates from the point of view of a womanizer named Lorcan, who has to be one of the slimiest, most amoral bastards I’ve encountered in recent memory. Throughout the book, the reader gets a sense of impending doom that this conscience-challenged pr*ck will eventually collide with one of the three main protagonists, but how? When he finally does, it leads to a momentous climax that is surprisingly dramatic, considering it is just a conversation between two people.
Other notable secondary characters, including Tara and Katherine’s former flat-mate, a perennially contemplative Swede; and Fintan’s brother, a no-nonsense Irish farmer who loves his flamboyantly gay sibling, keep the story percolating briskly. There are fewer quotable quips in the novel, indicating a maturing of Marian Keyes’ talents. You might miss the wackiness of Watermelon, but in return you get an insightful picture of three people on the verge of either finding themselves - or having a nervous breakdown.
I’ve become so enamored of Marian Keyes that I’ve mail-ordered her newest book, published only in her native Britain so far. Why wait a year, or more, for the American edition to come out when I know I can enjoy it now?