Catherine Isaac’s Messy, Wonderful Us is a sun-soaked story of family, friendship and the secrets people keep from one another – ones that have the power to reshape the past and change the trajectory of the future. More than that though, it’s also a beautifully absorbing novel, and it’s filled with questions that you can’t wait to see answered as the story unfolds.
Allie Culpepper lives a careful, focused life, but one day she stumbles upon a letter in her grandparents’ house about her mother that threatens to change everything she thought she knew. Soon, Allie is waiting to board a plane to Italy in a bid to get some answers and joining her is her best friend Ed, a man she’s known since their schooldays, who’s hoping for some time away to think and clear his head after his surprise separation from his wife Julia.
As the two old friends head to Lake Garda and Liguria on a search for answers, they’re soon accompanied by the emergence of old secrets, shifting relationships and new challenges to overcome – and at the centre of it all is Allie and Ed themselves as the two best friends are soon forced to confront questions about their own life-long relationship too.
“Total inactivity is becoming an increasingly attractive prospect. Yet I couldn’t live with myself if I leave Italy knowing nothing more than when I arrived. If there’s an innocent explanation behind what I found in Grandma’s house, I need to know what it is, for my sake and for Dad’s.”
Messy, Wonderful Us explores the messy nature of love and the complex web of ties it creates between people, and it’s a story that has been populated by such vivid, realistic characters and told in such a warm, easy-flowing style that it is an absolute joy to lose yourself in these pages every time you pick up this novel. Isaac deftly balances a number of perspectives and timelines – telling the main, modern day narrative alongside dips into Allie and Ed’s childhood and adolescence as well as the story of another, unnamed character in the past too – and everything feeds together to form an engrossing whole, without any of the frustrations that can sometimes come from timeline jumping in novels.
In fact, it’s a style that serves the novel well, dealing as it does with family secrets that go back generations, and the shifting nature of relationships over the years too. Allie and Ed’s present day dynamic in particular is rewarded the most by this, as what looks like a seemingly normal friendship at first, albeit one that’s perhaps not as close as it once was, is slowly reshaped as the details of their past emerge. It’s new information that’s never wasted, either – it’s there to explain some of Allie’s stilted behaviour, and Ed’s initial standoffishness – and it helps to build towards a narrative peak for these two characters that is as inevitable as it is heartwrenching.
But while Allie and Ed’s story is certainly a highlight, there’s no denying that Messy, Wonderful Us is, at its heart, a story about family. In these pages Isaac explores a social history, bringing to life the different decades of Allie’s childhood, her mother Christine’s teenage years and beyond. The novel gently probes into some hard-hitting and difficult subject matters too, including adoption, domestic violence and grief, and the more Isaac continues to scratch under the surface of her characters and their lives, the more the novel draws you in closer.
It should also be noted, however, that this novel does detour into melodramatics in its closing chapters, and the genuine, unexpected twists of the earlier half of the novel are replaced by bigger, more overblown moments that wouldn’t feel out of place on a soap opera. It does jar with some of the earlier power of the novel, which primarily focuses on tensions on a smaller, more intimate level, but Messy, Wonderful Us is nevertheless still a gloriously entertaining and vividly detailed story – and by the time the shift takes place, you’re already well invested in these characters and their lives and willing to see their stories through.
There are a few things that readers can find fault with in this novel, and your enjoyment of it will largely depend on how willing you are to accept certain key twists that may just stretch your suspension of disbelief too far. But ultimately this novel is a tightly-plotted and extremely well-crafted book with characters to root for and a family you warm to instantly, all wrapped up in a sunny, Italian package. On the whole, this is an emotional, satisfying read that proves that the huge success of Isaac’s earlier novel You, Me, Everything was not just a fluke. Messy, Wonderful Us is a celebration of family, friendship and love in all of its many forms. Love is messy, yes, but it’s also wonderful, heartwarming and uplifting – much like this book.
Messy, Wonderful Us is published in paperback by Simon & Schuster UK on 5 March 2020