Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane

Running on empty…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Highway BlueSince Anne Marie’s husband Cal walked out on her a couple of years ago, she’s been living a kind of aimless existence, working in a bar, sharing an apartment with a group of women she doesn’t really think of as friends, having one night stands just for a brief feeling of connection. So when Cal turns up at her door out of the blue, it throws her into a state of confusion, and before she has a chance to think, they both get involved in an incident that ends up with them on the run together, heading off down the highway in a beat-up old car with no particular destination in mind. Now that her old life is over, Anne Marie will have to decide what her future will be, and whether Cal should have any role in it…

This is well written and the picture of two drifting people coming together again, perhaps briefly, perhaps to renew their old relationship, is very well painted. However, that’s all there is to it, and for me it felt too slight a story to hang a novel around, even although it is very short. The being on the run aspect feels extraneous since there’s no real sense of pursuit or danger. Basically they drive for days on end, while Anne Marie as our narrator gradually reveals snippets of her past to the reader so that we come to understand her ambivalence about Cal and about love in general. Along the way, they meet an array of characters, each for the briefest of moments during which what we learn each time is that they’re all alone and all lonely.

Ailsa McFarlane
Ailsa McFarlane

It feels more like a very good character sketch of Anne Marie than a novel. I found her believable and well drawn, but I kept waiting for something more and it never arrived. It seemed to me to be drawing from two classic strands of American culture – the road trip as metaphor for self discovery novel, such as Rabbit, Run or On the Road, and the more noirish tradition of people on the run, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Postman Always Rings Twice, even Thelma and Louise. In other words, it has been done before and frankly doesn’t bring enough new to the table to justify doing it again. Its brevity also means that we remain inside Anne Marie’s head entirely, so that I felt it missed the opportunity to reflect on the America through which they drive. It seemed odd in a road-trip novel that the author chose to give her places fictional names – I couldn’t help my cynicism from wondering if this was merely so that she wouldn’t have to research actual places, though perhaps she wanted to keep the reader’s focus totally on Anne Marie’s dilemma without distractions.

It’s a debut novel and I feel shows that McFarlane has a lot of potential in terms of creation of atmosphere and building complex and credible characters. However, in order to be fulfilled, that potential requires a stronger story with more depth. I look forward to seeing how she develops in her future career.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Amazon US Link

38 thoughts on “Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane

  1. This is an interesting premise, but I agree with you that it’s odd to do a road trip novel and then make up the places – surely half the pleasure is in visiting all those different locations!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I kinda felt as if I was in a car with the blinds pulled down so I couldn’t see out! I’d love to know why she chose to make her places fictional – it seemed such an odd choice for a road-trip novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoy armchair travelling too, so would prefer to read a little about where the characters went. Your sub title made me laugh as there is an old Australian car movie called Running on Empty. It isn’t a great movie, but the hot rodders and car-people love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder whether this is another case of poor marketing, a supposed travel novel, which is in actual fact a piece of character-based, psychological fiction. As the latter, it does sound as though this could have some potential, as Anne Marie sounds well-drawn, but the premis does sound a bit thin for a full novel, a short story might have been better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does feel much more like a short story in style – that kind of fragmentary feeling you often get in shorts. She can certainly write but there’s just not enough substance in this for it to be satisfying as a novel, I’m afraid.

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  4. That’s the thing, isn’t it, FictionFan? Strong and well-developed characters are important. But if a plot isn’t strong enough to be sustained over the course of a novel, that can leave a story a bit wanting. Still, the road trip context is really interesting, and the characters seem sympathetic enough that you actually want to know what happens to them. To me, that’s so important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it had all the potential to fit in well to this kind of on-the-run sub-genre, but somehow that aspect got lost in the middle. I’m plot-driven, as you know, and I felt that it would have had much more substance if there had been a real sense of peril and a climax – like Thelma and Louise, in fact. But if she can use her talent for characterisation and atmosphere, and find a stronger story next time then she will be one to watch!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the fake place thing was odd – I felt as if I was sitting in a car with the blinds down, unable to see out most of the time. But she certainly has talent – one to watch for the future!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Susan and I often disagree – she has much more tolerance for lack of plot than I have, so gets on much better with a lot of contemporary fiction. So I’d be more inclined to follow her opinion than my grumpier, hyper-critical one… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hope we do! This one has a lot to offer but sadly just lacks a strong story, which for me is an essential. But the reviews are mixed – many people are loving it, so I hope she’s encouraged enough to keep writing.

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  5. I would have preferred real places too. I’m not so sure about the plot, with the husband that comes back after a few years. It doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It turned out not really to be mine either – I’m not sure now what attracted me to it in the first place, but I suspect it was the road trip angle, so it was disappointing that she didn’t take me to real places.

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  6. Not tempted, FF — sorry. I don’t guess I’ll ever understand what’s happened to the publishing industry today. Shouldn’t an editor have realized this was a good idea but it doesn’t go far or deep enough? It doesn’t seem cost-effective to put out a book that short. And with a debut novelist, it would be better (in my opinion) to start them down the right path, fleshing out a story rather than leaving gaps. As for the fictional place-names, argh!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you all the way, Debbie! I’ve really made an effort to read more new releases this year and it’s reminded me why I’d stopped – so many of them simply don’t bother to tell a good story. They’re all about “innovative” style, or identity politics, or full of the foulest language or graphic sex, and frankly I don’t understand how a lot of it gets published, or who would want to read it anyway. If this is really what our society finds entertaining, I’m going to Mars! I hasten to add this one has lots of good aspects – but the story just isn’t strong enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I can handle a sub-par plot as long as the character development satisfies me enough, but…. if I’m on a road trip, I really prefer it to include real places. A small fictional town is okay in which to base a story, but preferably with real life cities to go along with it.

    On a side note, I finished The Pact by Sharon Bolton last night. Excellent!! I’m glad you recommended it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m fine with fictional places as a setting too, but it doesn’t feel right for a road-trip somehow, when usually there’s a lot of observation about the state of the nation.

      Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed The Pact – she’s really great when she’s on form! Now you need to read Dead Woman Walking… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s not at my digital library and Amazon has some mixed reviews… but having gone back to your review of it, I think I’m going to have to put it on the wishlist. I want to know more about those entertaining nuns! 😉 Humor mixed in with serious topics suits me just fine.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Haha, I loved those nuns! I think that’s why I love Bolton so much – she always manages to tell a good story and keep it entertaining, even when it touches on some dark themes. I prefer to be amused than harrowed!!

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I was interested in the pared back vs. not pared back discussion above, sometimes I’m on the minimal side. I let fate decide, it’s not in the library and Kindle’s not cheap, so I won’t be reading it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hmmm too bad about this one, it sounds like it has all the right elements, was perhaps just published a little too soon? The plot needed some more work, and hopefully an editor could have helped with that. Also a very odd choice to not use real places if they are so obviously in America…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do wonder if I’m alone in feeling novels should have plots – so many of them seem not to have in recent years! But she certainly has talent, so I look forward to seeing if she can come up with a stronger story on her next outing. And yes, those fictional places on a road trip still seem very odd to me…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m more tolerant of non-plot novels but they have to have something else and there are so many road trip novels here I can’t really see why this one stood out to a publisher. As you say maybe her next outing will bring a stronger book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, if there had been a decent commentary on modern America through the road-trip aspect, I’d have forgiven the relative lack of plot. But there really wasn’t much to it except Anne Marie’s internal thoughts and they simply weren’t interesting enough to sustain a novel, in my opinion. But she has talent, so I’ll be keen to see how she develops.

      Liked by 1 person

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