Review: 500 Miles from You by Jenny Colgan (2020)

Scottish Bookshop, Book #3

Heat Factor: They’re not even in the same place until the very end of the book (seriously, 96%), so no

Character Chemistry: Weirdly, the chemistry worked for me, and I’m still trying to figure out how

Plot: Two nurses do an exchange program

Overall: It’s a lot and scanty at the same time

An epistolary romance between an ex-army medic Scottish nurse practitioner and an inner city London nurse practitioner with PTSD, you say? Sign me up, I say. 

This book is published by HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, so I expected it to be a bit more in the chick-lit romance zone than in the romance romance zone, and that’s exactly where it was. So if you’re looking for a no-sex, self-exploration sort of story, this might strike your fancy. But it also had a bit more of a literary fiction finish than I’d expected, which occurred in a few different areas of the tale, leaving me with mixed feelings, because in some ways it worked while in others it was frustrating. 

For starters, Cormac, the Scottish nurse, and Lissa, the London nurse, somehow have an engaging connection even though they’re barely together. They really meet after the 95% mark (there’s an interlude at 84%, but they haven’t actually met at that point), and calling this an epistolary novel is a bit of a stretch because they do talk to each other through email and text, but not very much. The exchanges, as written, are almost nothing in terms of meaningful exchanges between burgeoning love interests. And yet, somehow, the understated way that Colgan goes about developing this relationship works. 

(On the other hand, from a relationship development standpoint, I’m feeling a little bit like I feel after characters have a break up fight and then the reconciliation is a proposal. Like, that’s maybe not super healthy.)

The best way, I think, to illuminate the dynamic I’m talking about is to share a passage that embodies this understated style. Both Cormac and Lissa have been out with other people and realized that they really just wanted to talk to each other. Lissa’s trauma is on the page rather graphically – note: big content warning of on-page death of a child – because it’s the reason that she has PTSD and needs to move to Scotland, but the reader doesn’t get the same understanding of Cormac’s trauma from his time as an army medic. So after never wanting to talk about it in his small town where everybody knows everybody’s business, Cormac realizes he wants to talk, but not with the woman he’s on a date with. So he starts texting Lissa:

Lissa didn’t say anything, just sat and waited, the little glowing phone in her hand, the center of her world right then. And Cormac poured it all out, typing as if his life depended on it, his spelling all over the place. Telling her about the hideous injuries, the pointless pain, the children caught in the cross fire; the waste of all of it. How he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop worrying about it. How he had come home, and his mother was ashamed of him, and he felt like a coward for leaving his comrades. She read it all, patiently and carefully. And at the end of it, she typed just two words. 

I know. 

And she signed it off with a kiss. And Cormac held his phone to his chest, close, just as, five hundred miles away, Lissa was doing exactly the same thing, as if they were holding each other’s hearts in their hands.

On the one hand, there is basically no grit in this, one of the heaviest and most romantic points of the story. In a paragraph, Lissa and Cormac connect, and we don’t even really get to see it. On the other hand, we can understand how important and meaningful it is to these protagonists, even without a level of detail that could, frankly, undo all the hard work of creating the romantic tension up to that point. It’s extremely detached, and yet it totally works.

Where this style didn’t work so well for me was in the unnecessary withholding of information about the characters. Once upon a time, someone on the bird app declared that they were going to DNF books that didn’t explicitly state character race because leaving it open to interpretation is BS. At the time, I thought, I get where that’s coming from, but is it really that frustrating? (Then I immediately noticed all these books with race explicitly stated only for the non-white characters. So that was informative.) Now I understand at least one way that it is TOTALLY ANNOYING. There is no benefit to ambiguity when an author is trying to get the reader to connect with the experience of a non-white character. AND YET I had only a frustrating inkling about Lissa’s race (because of comments about her hair) until a moment well into the story when a secondary character described her by referring to Meghan Markle (except that she doesn’t look like Meghan Markle, but you know those freckles?), which also didn’t really tell me much, so I wasn’t sure until nearly the end of the book when yet another secondary character asked Lissa, “But where are you really from?”

I understand that all of these characters can see each other, but I can’t see them, so describing one person as “with olive skin” and another as “with too-long hair” in the same paragraph is just super confusing. Am I meant to understand that the latter character is white while the former has a particular heritage? And is that heritage supposed to be, like, Italian or, like, Egyptian or…? S-P-E-L-L I-T O-U-T F-O-R M-E. 

As for the rest, I expected this to be a bit of self-exploration for both Lissa and Cormac, who were mired in their own worlds and would benefit from being somewhere new. They would connect over sharing new experiences! I was excited about this because I am a child of urban and rural myself. But what started off as a sort of challenge to both Lissa and Cormac’s biases – there’s merit in both city and country living, right? – turned into a love song to the rural life. This was fine because the couple was going to have to end up somewhere, but disappointing because Lissa seemed to conflate small town life with self care. 

To clarify: At one point Lissa wakes up on a weekend morning, and she revels in being able to relax.

Oh, the luxury, the rare luxury, of waking on a sunny Sunday morning with nothing to do and someone else to think about. 

Once upon a time this would have made Lissa panic. She would have felt lonely and worried that she was living in the center of the greatest city in the world and not making the most of it. She would have been entirely concerned that she was wasting time, desperately checking her Insta to see if her friends had been up to something fun that she would have wanted to go to…

Whereas in Kirrinfief, Scotland, none of that pressure existed, and everybody simply went to anything eventful because that was all there was to do, and if you wanted some company you could just walk down to the pub for a chat. It’s a slightly romanticized view of rural life, but it’s certainly true that you’re more likely to be able to strike up a conversation in a rural pub than in a bar in an urban center. I just never felt that Lissa fully extracted setting personal boundaries and doing what made her truly comfortable (which she should have been able to do in either setting) from what made Kirrinfief the place she wanted to put down roots.

While this was a very nice book, and I enjoy a solid slow burn, I would have preferred a little more reward after waiting for Lissa and Cormac to get to each other. More romance romance, if you will.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

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