Sarah Mayberry’s The Other Side of Us is a quiet romance between two mature people. Both Oliver and Mackenzie are recovering from trauma–in his case, the breakup of his marriage; in hers, a serious car accident. They meet when they retreat to neighboring beach houses to recuperate and regroup. It’s not a great time for either to fall in love, but they do. And because they are grown-ups, they talk through the inevitable difficulties and support each other in figuring out what to do next.
I had a Twitter conversation about this book with a reader who didn’t love it as much as I did and pointed out some of its problems (e.g. pacing issues and the way that Mackenzie’s “old” and “new” selves aren’t fully integrated). I agree with everything she said, but I enjoyed the book so much I didn’t care about those things. So I guess this is my “book crack.” This isn’t a straight-up review; check out Brie or Natalie for that. Rather, it’s about why the book made me think of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and how for once Harlequin gave us a really great title.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
In Mayberry’s book, it’s Mackenzie’s amorous dachshund, who finds a hole in the fence between their properties and introduces himself to Oliver’s schnauzer, thus bringing our couple together in a Meet Annoyed. Mackenzie brushes Oliver off and shuts the door in his face (because her rehab workout has made her nauseated, though he doesn’t know that). Oliver fixes the fence.
But because they are both basically nice and mature people, and yes, because they find each other attractive, they don’t stop at the cranky belief that “good fences make good neighbors.” Oliver helps Mackenzie when she’s threatened with a flood. She cooks him dinner as a thank you. They become friends, and then more.
The fence is a symbol, of course, like Frost’s wall, but Mayberry never smacks you upside the head with it: “Hey Reader! This is a Symbolic Fence!” (I love that the Wikipedia entry for “Mending Wall” informs us it’s “a metaphorical poem.” I guess that’s from the Blindingly Obvious School of criticism.) Neighborliness, friendship, love, do not love a wall. We have to let our defenses down, make “gaps even two can pass abreast,” to fall in love.
At the novel’s beginning, Mackenzie and Oliver are walled off. They’re isolated from their old lives and old selves, unsure of what will come next. Both say that they didn’t expect or want to meet someone desirable now.
[S]he was having trouble locating normal right at the moment. Her career was in limbo, her body a work in progress. She’d lost sight of so many of the things that used to be important to her, that used to define her. . . . Maybe some deep, wise part of her brain had understood that she had enough on her plate right now without helping herself to a big slice of Oliver, as well. Maybe that was what her precipitous retreat had been about.
So why do these two, preoccupied with working out their own problems and redefining themselves, manage to make a gap in the metaphorical fence between them big enough to walk through two abreast? I think it’s because they are mourning losses and considering the future, but they were mature and self-aware enough before their lives were shaken up to be basically OK. The trauma hasn’t undone them completely. They’re in rehab, not at rock bottom, when they meet. They’re imagining new creative work for themselves, a sign that they’re ready to create something together, too. (The wall-building in Frost’s poem is often interpreted as a metaphor for poetic creation).
The symbolic importance of the fence makes The Other Side of Us the perfect title for this novel. Oliver and Mackenzie live on the other side of a fence from each other, obviously. They are both coming out on “the other side” of a life-changing event–traumas without which, they recognize, they would never have found each other. They are stopping to discover their own “other sides,” pieces of themselves they had once left behind. It’s not that those gifts make trauma welcome, exactly; but they recognize that there are gifts.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out
It’s no surprise these characters want to build protective walls. Mackenzie was always a bit prickly and reserved. Now she’s not sure who she is, nor what Oliver will think of her scarred and less-mobile body. Oliver was betrayed by his wife and is reluctant to trust his heart to someone else. But they each ask whether the other is worth the risk, whether they really want to wall out love.
The Other Side of Us is about having the courage not to repair those gaps you find in your defenses, to let connection and love through them. It’s kind of a cheesy cliché put that way. But Mayberry, like Frost, doesn’t put it that way. She tells a story about a fence, trusting her readers to make the metaphorical leap to her characters’ defenses if they’re so inclined. And that’s one thing I loved about this book.