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Book Review: The Back Up Man by Phoebe Luckhurst

Book Review: The Back Up Man by Phoebe Luckhurst

Phoebe Luckhurst’s second novel The Back Up Man feels like a story that’s been transported straight out of the golden era of early ‘00s rom-coms and into the pages of a delightful and uplifting novel. This is a story that’s brimming with nostalgia and warmth, with a character who’s left feeling lost, off-kilter and looking for focus, setting her down a path that includes family, friends, a hint of mystery and just a dash of romance too.

After an unexpected break-up with her long term boyfriend leaves Anya Mackie single, without a place to live and, ultimately, without a job too, it’s fair to say that Anya is left feeling down on her luck and hoping that things will get better again soon. As she moves into her quiet and aloof younger cousin’s home and faces her mum’s disappointment, Anya ends up stumbling across a piece of paper that details the pact she made with her high school crush Euan when they were 17: if both Anya and Euan are still single at the age of 30, they will find each other once again.

With the rest of her life falling apart around her, the reappearance of this pact suddenly gives Anya something to focus on – the only problem is, she hasn’t seen Euan for 10 years, and she has no idea how to find him again. As it turns out, however, Euan’s best friend from school Jamie Kildare is also trying to track him down, and Anya and Jamie soon join forces in a bid to find Euan. Soon, the pair are travelling across the country, visiting Euan’s old haunts and attempting to pick up a trail to reunite them with Euan once again. But will Euan even remember his and Anya’s pact? What are Jamie’s reasons for trying to track down Euan? And are some things just better left in the past?

Obviously, this was a silly mission; a short-term distraction from the chaos and disappointment of her life. But as Anya settled back in her seat for the home stretch, watching the blur and rush of a Saturday evening in her city, she felt newly purposeful. It was a nice change.”

Despite the blurb – and despite the novel’s title – this book isn’t actually the story of ‘the back up man’ as much as it is a personal story of growth, self-belief and, really, just what it takes to give yourself a push in the right direction. Nothing proves this more than the fact that the shift towards Anya and Jamie’s reconnection and their mission to find Euan doesn’t really get going until the latter half of the novel. Instead, The Back Up Man focuses primarily on Anya and the crossroads in life that she finds herself in. Luckhurst has wonderfully captured that feeling of striving to move forward while not quite feeling ready to let go of all the lighter, more carefree days of your teenaged past until you’re left wondering ‘what if…’.

What this also means, however, is that The Back Up Man is very much a novel of two halves. The first half is a more somber, everyday life minutiae kind of story, following Anya in some of the worst days of her life and in the weeks afterwards as she tries to put the pieces back together. There’s a lot of story to set up, as well as characters to introduce and relationships to establish, and while this background and build up is appreciated, it also lasts entirely too long and, crucially, starts to detract from the promise of the book itself. It’s not until the idea of finding Euan again takes root, and Jamie Kildare is introduced to help Anya set out on her admittedly out-of-left field quest, that the real shape of The Back Up Man begins to reveal itself as the fun, flirty, warm-hearted story that the book’s blurb suggests.

There’s a lot of joy to be found in Anya’s story as she takes the next steps in her life and career. Her relationships with her friends Tasha and Paddy and sister Georgie are solid and supportive, and the love and solace Anya finds in her food blog is evident every time Luckhurst brings each of Anya’s dishes to life with her brilliantly in-depth descriptions too. Even Anya’s newer connections, like that with her cousin Claire, the 11-year-old twins she finds herself babysitting and their influencer mother Aimee are given time to shift, develop and grow. It makes for a quiet kind of novel that places a lot of focus on the little moments; every small victory Anya achieves is seen and celebrated, serving as a reminder that change doesn’t have to be big and dramatic all the time to be noticed.

Even so, the clear narrative interest is on Anya and Jamie’s quest to find Euan, bringing with it the nostalgia of the past, a healthy side plot of amateur sleuthing and a charming new partnership to root for too. It’s with this plot that the novel shines and brings to mind the giddy remembrances of romcoms gone by, from Leap Year to Love, Rosie. Despite the book’s slower start and the uneven narrative weight it leads to, this plot line soon proves it’s worth waiting for and Luckhurst quickly incorporates it into the wider narrative so effortlessly that it’s a shame it didn’t arrive sooner so that we could see even more from it.

The Back Up Man is an entertaining and endearing novel that’s filled with mishaps, long shots and warmth from start to finish, all centred on a character who brings familiarity and warmth to every page. Although the narrative ultimately felt a bit uneven, with story beats that lingered a little too long, an abrupt ending and elements I’d have liked to see more of, there’s no denying that The Back Up Man is a cosy, heartfelt novel that celebrates life for all of its messy, joyful and far-fetched twists and turns, making for a great read to brighten up the winter months.


The Back Up Man was published by Penguin on 19 January 2023

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