High-flying romance in an uplifting debut from Eithne Shortall
Love in Row 27 brings the First Dates formula to the skies
Eithne Shortall: her fiction is written with humour and levity
Love in Row 27
Try as we might to be open-minded, reviewers can be human too and find ourselves pre-judging a book by its cover. So it was with the loveheart graphic on the front of Eithne Shortall’s debut Love in Row 27, and the declaration by the author on her Twitter page that her first book is intended to offer a comfort blanket to readers.
The gods of contemporary women’s fiction got their own back later that evening with a bout of food poisoning. Over the next few days of recovery, Shortall’s charming debut did indeed provide the proverbial blanket with her story of an airline check-in attendant in her late twenties who plays cupid to unsuspecting flyers.
The hallmarks of a classic romance are given a 21st century makeover in Shortall’s novel. After moving home to London following the break-up of a relationship in Berlin, Cora Hendricks looks to distract herself from her own heartache by matchmaking at the Aer Lingus desk in Heathrow Airport. “Heathrow’s answer to David Attenborough” uses social media to screen her specimens and her efforts result in an entertaining mix of hits and misses that successfully transfers the First Dates formula to the skies.
Array of perspectives
The assortment of characters in such a scenario is key to sustaining interest. Shortall picks wisely, offering an array of different perspectives: Nancy Moone, Cora’s in-flight helper, is an ambitious woman who belies the trolley dolly stereotype; her gay American colleague George resents Cora’s matchmaking as he can’t find love himself; frequent flier Ingrid and her love of clichés is written with great comic timing; a world weary teacher tries to control a bunch of hormonal teenagers en route to Newgrange; a pompous lawyer lectures a young girl flying back to Ireland after an abortion and fails to notice her pain; and even the couple towards the end of the novel – Leonora and Jeffrey – who initially feel like two ticks in the diversity boxes of age and race, both deliver interesting views on life after the death of a spouse and the frustrations of being mollycoddled by their adult children.
Shortall has her finger on the pulse, as is to be expected for a journalist
This theme of the circle of life is made beautifully clear by Shortall through Cora’s personal circumstances, where her beloved mother Sheila moves from the early stages of Alzheimer’s to needing full-time care. The subplot of Sheila’s deterioration is poignantly related and adds weight to the lighter fare. A vivid scene at Cora’s sister’s house for Sheila’s birthday shows the devastating effects of losing someone while they remain physically the same.
Other thought-provoking ideas touched on in the novel include racism in cartoons, the marriage referendum in Ireland and the public’s fascination with weight and cookery programmes. Shortall has her finger on the pulse, as is to be expected for a journalist. The Dublin-born author studied journalism at Dublin City University and has lived in London, France and America. Now based in Dublin, she is chief arts writer for the Sunday Times Ireland.
Shortall’s fiction is written with humour and levity. Cora’s friend Nancy has a particularly wry outlook on life, growing up in a household where her brothers’ achievements overshadowed her own: “When your mam keeps calling to tell you how skinny your pregnant sister-in-law is, which by the way was an unhinged thing to be proud of”. The details of the air hostess world also provide comedy, from how the crew deal with unruly passengers, to the ins-and-outs of the job: “They were out of Touche Eclat. Again”.
The initial chapters have the genre’s tendency to bucket dump information on characters from an omniscient perspective, and it’s spelled out one too many times that Cora is hiding from her own life with her matchmaking, but these quibbles fade amid colourful scenes and dialogue that hits the mark, particularly with the mismatches in the air.
But no romance novel is successful without the heroine’s own compelling amorous entanglements and resolution. Cora is likeable and well-drawn, with her descent into obsession with the matchmaking highlighted by her no-nonsense Irish flatmate Róisín: “The passengers are total strangers and you’re verging on stalker”. Cora’s former relationship with Friedrich – a misunderstood German musician that will have readers themselves swearing off romance – is vividly rendered: “He had woken her up to see what she was dreaming about. It was a particular affront to Friedrich when she slept and he did not, like she was keeping some experience from him”.
As Cora gets over him, there are potential suitors such as the handsome airport security guard, but readers will spot the Darcy dynamic with a frequent flying passenger long before Cora herself does. Although obvious, it feels vibrant and modern, a Dublin doctor with “the three P’s – pride, pedantry, and pompous taste in films”. Love in Row 27 is an uplifting novel that wraps you in its clutches. Emergency exit initial disdain, shamefaced.