In spite of its title, Kathleen MacMahon’s debut novel, “This Is How It Ends,” is really about new beginnings, and the often misplaced sense of hope that comes with them.
This sentiment is embodied by Bruno, a 50-something, divorced American expat who finds himself unemployed after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and goes to Ireland to research his family tree. In doing so, he meets and gets involved with his cousin (second, once removed) Addie, a freelance architect who’s unlucky in love and still reeling from a miscarriage nearly a year prior. As the book opens Addie is focusing her attention on caring for her elderly father, a grumpy aging surgeon who is facing a lawsuit from the family of one of his patients.
Cynics, beware. Their romance, which is at the center of the book’s plot, feels at times so unrealistic it would make even the most hopeless of romantics a little skeptical. This is not a love story to get lost in; too much is heavily signaled; and parts feel simply manipulative.
Set in the fall and winter of 2008-09, against the backdrop of the US presidential election, the novel takes place as Ireland teeters on the brink of recession, and America isn’t faring much better (“If the Republicans win, I’m not going back,” Bruno vows early on.). Of course, Bruno and Addie’s relationship mirrors the looming global economic collapse and political changes around them — and, in case this wasn’t obvious enough, MacMahon beats readers over the head with the analogy. At one point near the beginning of Bruno and Addie’s affair, in the early days of the financial crisis, “This wasn’t recession, this was the bit that comes beforehand. This was suspension of reality. It was denial. . . . The signs were all there, but nobody wanted to know.”
With barely a passing thought given to the fact that they’re related (Addie dismisses Bruno’s observation that the two are distant cousins with a flippant “Oh, we don’t really count that stuff here,” though some readers might not get past it so easily), the two embark on a gauzy and romantic, if clearly ill-fated, idyll.
Unemployed yet still able to live comfortably without working, they have days together that consist mostly of researching their shared family history and driving around the Irish countryside listening to Bruce Springsteen. Cue sappy montage scenes of skinny dipping, pub dancing, and winter mornings spent mapping out family trees.
MacMahon sets up Bruno and Addie’s courtship so predictably that a reader is not drawn into the magic but made aware of the mechanism behind the trick; we can tell that she’s trying to provide us with something to mourn when the book comes to its inevitably tragic, and overly foreshadowed, conclusion.
As characters, Bruno and Addie are not unlikable, just uninteresting. Addie’s emotional fragility becomes grating, and often seems like that of a teenager as opposed to a woman on the cusp of 40. Bruno’s stereotypical American-ness, meanwhile, down to his reverence for Springsteen, is presumably meant to be endearing but instead comes off as eye-rollingly generic.
There are undoubtedly those who will appreciate the sweet, shallow love story in “This Is How It Ends.” But unfortunately, for a novel that reaches for ambitious themes, the book gets bogged down by its own mawkishness and, like many things that are too saccharine, leaves behind an unpleasant aftertaste.
Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at elizabeth.raftery