When I told my husband my new novel, Unexpected Lessons in Love, was about a woman who calls off her wedding at the last minute, he went a bit pale. ‘Where did you get the idea for that?’ he asked, warily. I told him it was inspired by my dad asking me, en route to our wedding, whether I was sure I wanted to go through with it (“He asked you what?!”) – just as he’d asked my sister, and just as my grandfather had asked my mum. I assumed it was what every dad did. It wasn’t a reflection on my fiancé (or my sister’s! Or, indeed, my dad…), just a dutiful father making the last ‘need any help, love?’ Dad gesture, stepping up to save his little girl from last-minute disaster, no matter how horrendously awkward it might be, or how many mushroom vol-au-vents would be sacrificed in the process.
Obviously I was sure I wanted to get married, and we did make it all the way to the church without even stopping the car, but it planted a seed of an idea in my head – what if I’d said yes, please can we stop? What would Dad have done? What about the friends at the church, the family, the caterers? The weird, Sliding Doors reality of the days that would follow, when the version of you in your wedding planner was on honeymoon in Florida and yet you were… well, where? Most of all, how had you allowed yourself to get into that horrendous position in the first place?
Well, to be honest… that part wasn’t so hard to imagine. We got engaged in late February, set a date for November, and blimey, those nine months raced by. You might as well declare yourselves married as soon as you say yes to the proposal because it’s pretty hard to pull the emergency cord on the runaway train that is wedding planning. The deposits stack up. Friends book annual leave. A woman in Barrow-in-Furness starts making a £350 fruitcake. Unless, like us, you attend a mandatory church wedding preparation class in which you’re encouraged to rank the financial importance of a tropical holiday, a tumble drier and pension contributions, there aren’t really many natural openings to discuss whether you might be having second thoughts about your long-term compatibility.
Jeannie as a character evolved backwards from this. For her to end up panicking in the wedding car, I knew she had to be the sort of person who longed to be swept up in romance so much that she’d ignore warning voices in her head until the very, very last minute. Not out of malice or stupidity – more from self-doubt and an inability to say no. And since it was her dad who ultimately made her face reality, I knew she had a warm, loving family who’d given her a clear idea of what a good marriage looked like – and how strong you need to be to deal with life’s problems. I liked her at once just on these few facts: I could feel how confused and ashamed she was at letting her fiancé Dan down, but at the same time, I sensed how important marriage was to her, and respected the courage it took not to lie about her vows.
Jeannie’s face popped into my mind when I typed that her talent was singing perfect harmonies to her bossier, sharper best mate, Edith. I could suddenly see her open yet shy smile, the freckles and the copper curls – I knew then that she was kind, creative, and liked keeping everything in tune. I had a vivid movie montage of their whole friendship from school to the first glimmers of success: singing in Jeannie’s bedroom, Edith’s rainbow hair next to Jeannie’s corkscrews, the spangles and tiny festivals and Docs and the slow, ‘is this really us?’ realisation that they were actually pretty good. But with Jeannie always in the background, Edith grabbing the limelight and the oxygen and the applause.
So that was her, but what about the path she’d have to take, once the wedding car stopped? Jeannie’s big lesson in the story would be finding the confidence to step into the spotlight and make her own decisions, instead of waiting for stronger characters to give her cues. She had to own her feelings, even when they might disappoint people or upset them. (The number of friends who told me they’d probably stay with a comatose man they didn’t love forever, rather than be ‘that woman’, was really interesting!) But to do that – in a town she’d only just moved to, having been abandoned by her best mate and with her parents hundreds of miles away – Jeannie would need friends. Really good friends, who understood what it meant to struggle with dilemmas that essentially tell you who you are as a human being, and not always in a good way.
Which is, of course, why I knew her new friend had to be Rachel Fenwick. And why I knew Rachel Fenwick had to be grappling with some pretty fundamental issues herself, not least the question of what a good marriage looks like, ten years down the line from the meet cute.
So that’s how I met Jeannie. If you want to meet her too – and find out how she resolves her somewhat awkward communication problem – Unexpected Lessons in Love is currently available in all good bookshops and supermarkets!