By Cecelia Ahern
American motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously stated that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” It’s a fascinating theory and, while things may not be quite as simple as it posits — after all, human beings are far too complex to be reduced to a single equation — the underlying idea behind the thought remains intriguing.
We are, supposedly, the most social of animals and much has always been made about the company we keep, so the logic behind the statement seems sound enough: social influence has an impact on our behaviour, personality and life, therefore we should be mindful of the people we spend time with.
It’s this oft-repeated sentiment that forms the basis of Irish writer Cecelia Ahern’s latest novel Freckles, a gentle drama that finds a quirky young woman re-evaluating her life based on this very idea.
The protagonist is Allegra Bird, nicknamed ‘Freckles’ because of the spots on her skin that she inherited from her beloved father. The 24-year-old Irish lass has been raised by her eccentric dad in Valentia Island, an idyllic haven in County Kerry.
A slow-burner of a novel has a quirkily intriguing protagonist, but is hampered by the author’s surprising lack of control over the pace and narrative
When the story begins, Allegra has moved to Malahide, a suburban village outside the city of Dublin, and taken a job as a parking warden after failing to achieve her lifelong ambition of joining the Irish police force. She lives in a studio flat above a gym in the back garden of a mansion that belongs to Becky, who works with computers, and Donnacha, who makes fine art ceramics.
To say that Allegra is a stickler for routine would be an understatement; every minute of her day — which includes encounters with coffee shop owner Spanner, fellow parking warden Paddy, and homeless man Whistles — is precisely, meticulously planned out. And she is very particular about rules, especially when it comes to her job, which she takes very seriously. But her life is disrupted when an encounter with a stranger leaves her shaken.
An illegally parked yellow Ferrari is what starts this chain of events. Every morning, Allegra finds the same car violating the parking rules and its owner fails to pay for parking even though she leaves a ticket beneath the windscreen wiper every single day.
One day, things finally come to a head. Having received tickets for two weeks, Tristen — a famous YouTuber and owner of the aforementioned sports car — angrily confronts Allegra while she is issuing his car yet another ticket, and asks her if she has a vendetta against him. Then, rather cruelly, he hurls the Jim Rohn quote at her.
“They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” he states, glaring at her. “Doesn’t say a lot about the company you keep,” he adds, implying that the people in her life must be losers, just like her.
The conversation rattles Allegra, and the thought snakes its way into her mind. Who are the five people that have shaped her life? Does she even have five? She has left her father and friends behind for a secret quest to fill a yearning, but she still feels like an outsider in her new life.
Her attempts to populate her list of five vary from cringe-worthy efforts at making friends, to developing genuine connections with people she least expected to befriend.
Allegra may not necessarily be the most compelling protagonist, or even a character you’ll necessarily enjoy spending time with, but she is quirky enough to be intriguing. It is also instantly refreshing that she isn’t simply looking for a romantic connection, as is the wont of conventional chick-lit heroines.
The marks she bears from joining freckles on her arm, mapping them like constellations during her nights at school, aren’t the only scars she’s dealing with, and it’s the emotional wounds that ultimately drive the story of this flawed, but resilient, young woman.
The pace of this exploration, however, is often sluggish to the point that it begins to test the reader’s patience. Ahern doesn’t always display the kind of control over the pace and narrative that you would expect from someone who has written over a dozen novels — PS, I Love You and Where Rainbows End were made into Hollywood films — and won numerous awards.
And while some may find the ending heart-warming, others — including myself — may think it comes off more saccharine and sappy rather than convincing drama.
Also, the lack of quotation marks to indicate speech might throw readers, at least initially. Several writers have chosen to present dialogues on the pages of their novels without using the inverted comma and in some cases — such as with Roddy Doyle and the em dash, for instance — it has worked seamlessly. But it’s a conversion that isn’t always effective, especially when the writing style isn’t strong enough. In Freckles, it feels more like an affectation instead of a useful literary device.
All in all, this slow-burner is likely to vibe with readers who enjoy gentle character explorations and like it when a story strolls along at a leisurely pace. Ahern has populated her book with several interesting characters and, while the tale they are in may not be quite as memorable as one would want, it still takes you on a touching journey that might even make you pause and appreciate the people who shape your own life.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 15th, 2022