‘If Only’ by Melanie Murphy – Review
For a relatively new profession, the career path for a Youtuber already seems paved – grow your platform, establish your brand image, watch your follower count grow, and then publish a book. I haven’t been an avid viewer of many channels for very long, but even the few channels I have subscribed to seem to follow this formula, including Rosie and Rose, Dodie, and, most recently, Melanie Murphy. But Melanie’s book ‘If Only’ was the first time I ever went out of my way specifically to purchase a piece of writing from someone primarily known for their Youtube videos, for one reason -it’s her debut fiction novel.
Previously, Melanie Murphy has published a deeply personal lifestyle book/memoir about being a twenty-something in modern times, called ‘Fully-Functioning Human (Almost)’. Nothing interested me less than reading someone else’s life lessons learned in their twenties. However, as this blog will hopefully one day boast, I adore fiction writing. I was the kid who was told off for hiding a book under her covers and reading by torchlight for hours after bedtime, and the A-level student who stretched all of her coursework pieces as close to creative writing assignments as possible. I couldn’t wait to follow the process of Melanie’s writing through her videos, and read the finished, published story a year later.
Melanie has one series on her Youtube channel that I mark down in my calendars. It’s a monthly vlog series, filming all of the highs and lows of her life through a month, and editing them into one smooth, entertaining 40 minute video. Through these videos, she’s offered us glimpses into her personal narrative. Over the course of 18 months, I feel as though I’ve watched her relationship grow from first long-distance flight to engagement, and I probably have about the same chance of recognising one of her family members on the street as I do of recognising my own. One of the best parts of these vlogs was watching the development of her first novel. From meetings with her publisher, to first drafts coming together in a hotel room, to final contract signings and her release party, I felt as invested in this novel as though I was a co-author. After being told that the only Waterstones to stock the paperbacks was based in Dublin, I boarded a plane (which admittedly had been booked months in advance for a girls’ holiday, but for the drama we’ll pretend otherwise) and explored Dublin until I found the book on the ‘New Irish Fiction’ table.
So, did it meet my expectations? I’ll begin by saying that this is the first book I’ve managed to finish reading in over 2 years. What happened to the kid under the covers? A mixture of reading only set-texts at school and discovering that the cause of my chronic migraines was eye-strain from reading and weak eyes kind of shot down my favourite hobby. But I got through ‘If Only’ in a matter of weeks, migraine-free.
There’s one key reason for this – it’s certainly an easy read. The plot is based around the magical-realism genre. Our protagonist Erin is given a family heirloom from her Granny on her 30th birthday: a magical tree of life pendant, which enables the wearer to experience a day in alternate realities of their life. Erin’s life is not exactly where she planned for it to be at 30. She’s childless, has just broken up with her posh-but-boring fiance Dan, is renting a room in a shared flat in London and working a job she hates at the Sugarpot Cafe. She has plenty of options when it comes to designing her new life. But “If only I’d put the winning lottery numbers down…” or “If only I’d impulsively blown my entire life’s savings on a mad one in Ibiza…” never crosses her mind. Instead, the plot bounces safely from reality to reality with questions like “If only I’d married Dan…” and “If only I’d stuck to the diet I started in university…”. The effect of this on the story can be summarised in a word: comfortable. By the third chapter, I knew that nothing awful was going to happen to Erin – equally, probably, nothing showstopping either – and I was happy to glimpse lives in which Erin was slim but bulimic, or settled and pregnant but unhappily married. The novel had that slightly reckless, drunk feeling of lucid dreams. Erin could do anything without real consequence. Despite the fact that the wildest thing that she thinks to do is probe her secret crush as to whether or not he’s single, that quiet thrill translates through the writing. It was fun to know that the potential for the mini-stories I’d read whenever Erin used an “If only…” wish were limitless.
Melanie’s Youtube videos cover topics such as sexuality, mental health, relationships and body image. Her channel is rooted in truth, real experiences and personal struggles and opinions. Her fiction work is no different. For the most part, this was definitely a strength of the book. Erin has PCOS, for example, and it was refreshingly real to read her internal struggle in trying to accept this diagnosis. Melanie even notes the difficulty in getting a diagnosis in the first place, and how dismissive doctors can be when describing Erin’s condition. Equally, the inclusion of gay characters with shaky mental health, or of bisexual characters embracing their sexuality and being open about it, without it being their one defining character trait, was masterfully told. I felt like I knew these people, and that I could bump into 5 more of them walking down the street. The single biggest piece of advice as a beginner writer that you hear is ‘write what you know’, and the gripping honesty throughout this novel is proof following this advice can pay off.
Maybe this is why Erin’s ‘If Onlys’ tended to be slightly watered down. I can’t deny that if I was handed a magical pendant, my first go might be wasted on “If only I’d had one fewer drinks and woken up in my own bed…” or “If only I’d worn flats, not heels…” even if only to experience a day in an alternate reality in which I retained a little more dignity. The plot was sometimes predictable, probably because it was believable. Erin couldn’t bring herself to follow through with her journalistic dreams until her love-interest encouraged her to start a blog. Nor could she accept her skin until she understood that standing in her dream body meant abusing it with eating disorders and over-exercising. Perhaps it figures that the smallest understandings and moments of clarity can have the greatest impact.
There were times when I felt I could feel the author’s voice too strongly. Whilst thinking back to times when she’d dreamed of starting a family with Dan, Erin criticises society’s views that women only think that they want to be mothers, as if we’re brainwashed into broodiness. ‘…[women] can’t think for themselves, no way! Women’s brains lack the capacity to make informed decisions, obviously!’ The effect of this is a little preachy. Was Melanie writing as Erin, or as Melanie? Erin struggles to speak the letters P-C-O-S out loud. It seems unlikely to me that she would take such a strong, feminist stance against society’s misconceptions about women, even in her inner monologue. I felt that the narrative voice occasionally slipped from Erin to Melanie and back again. Although, after promoting her own voice online for a decade, perhaps this was always going to be an inescapable risk when publishing fiction for the first time.
There was one habit in the writing that had me closing the book and ranting to my literature-literate friends: the constant reference to 80s songs. I have only ever really seen this done before in fan fiction, and even then, not very successfully. Rather than setting the scene, I found that the fact that Erin let me know that she was listening to ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ by Tubeway Army’ as she cycled through London was disjointing. To me, it screams that the author is clinging to other people’s creative work in order to convey her meaning, rather than expressing the mood of the scene herself through the writing. This grated on me, particularly since, unless she was commuting, Erin didn’t seem to care about music in a wider context. It might have flowed better if Erin spent her spare time going to gigs, or saving her tips to visit the founding ground of The Smiths, for example. Instead, it made me think that maybe Melanie really did want a soundtrack to the story. The montage-like descriptions of the passing of time, the gradual tension between Erin and her love-interest, and the marzipan-sickly happy ending at the end of so much of Erin’s unhappiness made the storytelling feel very cinematic. Maybe this is the reason I was able to get so into the characters, or why I found the book so easy to read, but it also made me cringe and brought the greatest criticism I throw at my own prose writing to my mind: Don’t try to do with words what is intended for cameras and cutting rooms. If you want to make a film, write the screenplay.
Overall, for a debut novel this was a good read. The plot was scattered with cliches, and the occasional metaphor which didn’t quite land, but the characters and true emotion of the story kept it afloat. Whether it helped or hindered my enjoyment that I knew the of the author so well before beginning it I’m not sure, but, undeniably, it helped me out of my two year reading dry spell, and inspired me to begin a blog and hold myself accountable to complete my own pieces of writing. Perhaps a glimpse into Erin’s reality was exactly the love-interest’s kick I needed.