About a month ago, I heard about an interesting-sounding book from a friend of mine. I decided to read and review it. The book is a new release by author Tess Woods, called “Beautiful Messy Love”.
It’s a romance story – but more than that. It’s about identities and relationships, traditions and cultures (of family, sport, religion) and how they influence our connections with each other. It tackles footy culture, family cultures and expectations, the all-invasive presence and power of the media (including social) and more. How do we find ourselves, our place in the world, amidst the competing woulds, shoulds and coulds from well-meaning family and friends as well as broader societal/ cultural expectations? How do we find love, negotiating those expectations?
The novel is set in Perth, Australia and centres on four characters – brother and sister Nick and Lily Harding, with Anwar (Anna) Hayati and Toby Watts – and their families and connections.
- Nick is an AFL footballer for the “Western Rangers” (team colours: red, white and green 😉 ) and he’s a bit of a “bad boy” turning, or turned, good, trying to find a place for himself between footy and the real world.
- Lily is “Yes Lily”, a medical student who’s two years from finishing her six-year degree but struggling with whether it’s really what she wants to do, or whether she said yes to others’ desires without standing up for herself again.
- Anna/Anwar is a young Muslim refugee, who has had to grow up too quickly after the tragedies that led to her residency in Australia – as a consequence, she’s very wise and adult in some ways but shy and curious about others.
- Toby is a man who’s experiencing personal tragedy and has big dreams held down by a sense of duty to others’ dreams.
Huh. Writing that, I can see why Toby and Lily are drawn to each other – they’re both “yes” people. Anwar/Anna and Nick are drawn to each other because they each see and honour each other’s pain and the different worlds they’ve experienced.
I knew I was going to enjoy this book from very early on. I remember sitting on the train, beginning to devour it and probably making other travellers very curious or exasperated as I giggled at a funny moment, then awwed in sympathy the next. I think the thing that sold me on Anna/Anwar and Nick was when Nick asked (at their first meeting) what “leviosa” meant after reading Anna’s t-shirt (“It’s LeviOsa, not LeviosAR” 😀 – I want it!). Anna/Anwar is so surprised he’s never read the series or watched the movies that she gives him her copy of Philosopher’s Stone. Then the way they arranged their first date…
I think it wasn’t long after that point that my brain said, “okay, they better have sorted their inevitable culture clashes et cetera out by the end of the book and still be together”. Or something. They’re so cute! I’m a sucker for romance the way Nick and Anna/Anwar do it. Of course, there are annoying parts too, bits when I wanted to grab one and say, “ugh, do that thing already!” But overall…. *dreamy sigh*. Anna/Anwar is someone I relate to with her feelings about Nick and compassion for others, and I’m sympathetic to her trauma-related struggles. Nick is sweet and footy-mad and dedicated and down-to-earth.
Lily and Toby’s relationship is more “eh” for me, because I think I relate to them less – and I don’t like rebounds much tbh. Apart from the pie-baking scene and other small moments, I found Toby a little annoying at first. Idk if he’s really my type. Therefore his story arc didn’t matter as much to me. Lily is relatable enough: the “Yes Lily” nickname resonates, as assertiveness is something I’m thinking about these days. Also the “crying at the drop of a hat” feeling. I hear you, Lily! She’s also very much the caring sister – as an older sister myself, that made me connect with her. But her personality comes off as a bit flaky to me at first so I only warmed up to her properly as the story went on.
The fact it was a “footy story” allowed for a really good exploration of fame and media and cultures clashing. As established on this blog, I’m a bit of a “floating” footy supporter, largely tied to my family team. I live it vicariously. But I’m also a consumer of media so I’m aware of the downright stupid stuff that footballers can get caught up in. So my lens was coloured by that when reading. Though I should note that Tess Woods wasn’t intending it to be a footy exposé. Just an interesting setting.
Another thing I loved was the way familial and platonic relationships of the four main characters with their family and friends worked. There were plenty of different personalities who all felt real. This was apparent when we saw the same character viewed through the eyes of more than one main character. That’s possible because each chapter is narrated in first person by one of the four characters. This story device can be hit-and-miss, but it works well in this novel. Each character has a distinctive voice and so the alternating insights are welcome. I loved the different perspectives – of the main characters and the supporting voices, especially when advice was given.
The book is divided into three sections plus epilogue, involving time-jumps. I kinda wish there’d been a fourth one, in-between the second and third, because that jump felt a little too big, especially given what was going on at the end of the “second act”. The intervening time was summed up by the characters but it still felt a little off – I’d have preferred to see a bit more of it happening rather than just hear perspectives about it. For me, it meant the transition to the climax was a little out-of-left-field (sports reference!) and the emotional-arc resolution for Nick and Anna/Anwar felt a little inevitable and flat, though still sweet.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I recommend it to people who like romance, stories about family and identity and finding your own place, and those looking for a light read that’s more than just fluff. Go and get your hands on it now. 🙂