“This is how it starts. A young man sits alone in an airport lounge. The seat beside him is empty. Someone sits down.” That person is Alison, the girl the young man is going to fall in love with very soon.
In 2015, Tess sits in an airport lounge in Colombo, alone. It’s very late where she was, and very early where she is going, and she is stuck in a terminal for the next four hours. Tess has intimacy issues. Mostly, she doesn’t like sharing her time or her emotional energy. She doesn’t have much of either.
Her phone dies, so Tess opens her book (the one she bought, not wrote), The Bit In Between. It’s a romance and it will remind her of romantic feelings. Holding a first novel by a young writer like Claire Varley is strange – like someone snuck into her brain, found her fantasy and made it tangible. Two fantasies: writing a book and falling in love, wrapped around each other.
Somewhere in the sky above Bali, halfway between Colombo and Sydney, Tess gets a weird feeling about Alison and Oliver.
Tess suspects that Alison is less invested in this relationship than Oliver.
Tess doesn’t like Alison.
Alison is directionless, inconsiderate and worst of all, reminds Tess of herself. Tess is jealous of Alison, and Alison and Oliver, and everyone who is on the plane and is not alone.
I am Tess.
I am not in love, and haven’t been for a while. I suspected a romantic novel would be painfully boring, or too painful. I was wrong.
“Coffee turned into dinner, dinner turned into drinks and drinks turned into hurried, meaningful sex on the floor of Oliver’s aunt’s guest room. And then they slept in each others arms with the exhausted familiarity that comes once in every relationship after that first intimate moment.”
The two main characters in The Bit In Between are twenty-something and attractive. Alison lacks direction, Oliver is a struggling writer. They fall in love.
Varley is clever about their love: even though the back cover says “Immediately. Inexplicitly. Irrevocably,” it seems, thankfully, that their love is none of these things.
Them falling for each other isn’t a surprise: that’s not the point of the book. The point is “the bit in between”, after the chase and before the break-up. This is usually not an interesting part of a love story; Romeo and Juliet never argued about getting Thai for dinner.
But Romeo and Juliet did fall in love irrevocably. I think it would be much easier to fall madly in love with someone you don’t have to spend any real time with. Alison and Oliver face the opposite problem: they move to the Solomon Islands together, with only each other for company. Everyone is terrible to live with, but especially the person you are supposed to be in love with.
It’s also what makes their love entirely revocable. That’s really what The Bit In Between is about: choices. Alison is not very good at making choices that stick, and if there’s tragedy to be found, it’s that Oliver can’t make her choose him. He can’t make her “settle down.” As a reader, I felt compelled to dislike Alison for this. I was expecting her to turn around and love the man who loved her; I expected her to realise that should be enough. I barely paused to question why I expected so much from her. After all, it is an absurdly warped view of love that dictates a woman is there to be “tamed” and that not complying makes her a failure.
Oliver was asking a lot: to move to the Solomon Islands for his book. It’s presented as a mutual decision, and that Alison is excited for the adventure. But I suspect that the move was really because of Oliver, and that Alison would have followed him to the middle of a desert. It’s unfair to dislike Alison for feeling trapped and wanting out, especially after the loss of her best friend’s unborn child, an event Oliver fails to support her through, but we do.
In contrast, Juliet is as loved as Romeo. She chooses to follow him in the most permanent, literal sense of the phrase, because he made a mistake. This is romance. Juliet is always loved for giving up her freedom; Alison can only be disliked for taking hers. It makes me uncomfortable that my first instinct was that Alison was being wasteful somehow, rather than that Oliver had put her in an emotionally untenable situation.
Perhaps it was just that, secretly, I want Oliver – and Alison giving up on him insults my deluded fictional crush.
I graduate from uni and have to look for a proper job.
After two weeks, I take one at a café. As I put latte after latte down, overhearing conversations about stressful three-story “renos” and “this phe-nom-en-al winery in the Hunter” and “increasing digital brand engagement” and the “bitchy” thing Cait said I start to think more about my jealousy and The Bit In Between.
I know what you’re thinking.
I shouldn’t be jealous. Just because I am a recent law graduate serving coffee in the Eastern suburbs latte-belt doesn’t mean I have failed. Sure, Oliver had a law degree and a novel under his belt by my age. And a book deal that funded a stint living in the Solomon Islands to focus on only his writing and nothing else, for months. But so what? He’s not real.
“Excuse me? I asked for soy?”
Okay, so I am jealous of a fictional character.
The real source of my jealousy is Oliver and his successful writing career. I know that’s the wrong thing to be jealous of. Bloodless and passionless and papery jealousy.
But that’s what it is.
“"You know who I am? I’m a mess. I pretend I’m not but I am. And one day you’ll see that and not want me anymore. I’m ridiculous… I sometimes piss on the toilet seat because I get distracted.“ Alison looked at him bewildered.”
We get a glimpse into the "artist’s struggle” through Oliver, who has gotten a sizeable book advance for his second novel. He also has a law degree.
But his struggle only seems to exist on the surface. It’s never real, or pervading, or actually all that messy. Thumping your head in frustration and throwing paper on the floor is untidy, but mess – the proper, scary, deeper kind – is a different beast. For me it looks like scattered thoughts, vague schedule, and ambiguous ambitions and a temporarily misplaced, hopefully not lost, sense of purpose.
There is an excellent book about that kind of mess called Art and Fear. Someone who is by all accounts a very successful writer, and said it helped her immensely in understanding why her process always felt like such a mess, recommended it to me.
This uncertainty and disorganisation is so often dismissed as the enemy of productivity, as something to be eliminated from our lives with a wall planner and a set of highlighters, or maybe a full-time job and a pantsuit (is that the correct term – ‘pantsuit’?)
But, in Art and Fear, the writers argue, “Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art.”
Mess is a precondition for art. But is the corollary really that lack of mess prevents art?
It seems like Oliver, as a character, challenges the idea that a struggling artist always has to be struggling. Spoiler: he finishes the book. Spoiler: he thinks it’s great, the book he was “meant to write”.
The front cover of The Bit In Between says “Writing a love story is a lot harder than living one.”
I wonder if this is a front cover, or it is what Varley was really trying to communicate. If her process was meant to be reflected by Oliver – ever-confident, undoubtedly talented and already published – then I call bullshit. I don’t believe it’s ever like that. But maybe my reaction says more about me; is it just jealousy talking?
Tess has a friend who is brimming with faith. She is content with her partner and her job, she doesn’t pine for adventure or find pantsuits itchy and constrictive.
Tess does very badly with certainty. She finds it boring, repetitive, draining. She tells her friends “I don’t know how you do it”, and they smile knowingly as she scrambles for change to pay for dinner. She is arrogant and naïve and her friends think she is entertaining to be around, even if she’s not on their level.
Alison lacks faith, too. She runs away from stability and into whirlwind romances. She is avoiding herself.
Usually, it Alison’s job to comfort Oliver through his (relatively speaking) dark days. This kind of thing is why Tess hates relationships; she needs to preserve her emotional integrity to get it down on the page. She believes writing is important, and that a solitary existence a worthwhile sacrifice. Tess resents Alison for not preserving herself in the same way, but she’d never admit it, because if she did it means she has misplaced her faith in art and paper, instead someone real.
Eventually, understandably, Alison grows restless in the Solomon Islands. It seems that somehow, at that point, his love is not quite enough for her. This is easily the best and most subversive part of the book, Tess thinks: a twenty-something woman who is not satisfied by love, despite being a central character in a love story.
When she collects her bags, Tess sees a young man at the carousel, and he seems familiar. He is wearing headphones and she looks at him, meaningfully. He glances up but doesn’t register her stare, and leaves. Tess is at an airport in Sydney, alone.
I put down a latte and think, “I have a law degree.” Then, “I am a writer.” “Oliver is a fraud.” “I want to be Oliver.”
I read the whole book in three days, and then again. I wanted to read a romantic novel, because I was lonely, and now I am jealous. But what am I jealous of? Oliver’s love for Alison the ingrate? Or his fantastical writing career?
If I were Alison, I would hate to be feel obliged to stay on an island for romance – even sticking around in Australia seems too much of a commitment and I breathe rapidly at the thought. As far as writing a historical fiction novel goes, a la Oliver, it’s not quite my thing..
As a novel, The Bit In Between shows that for romance to work it has to be slightly disingenuous. That’s not on Varley, either – as much as people hate to admit it, we’re not reading romance novels for reality, but for romance.
It’s only problematic when you mistake jealousy for desire.
Em Meller is a writer, journalist and editor whose work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Junkee, Overland, The Australian and other places. She has just finished a Writing and Cultural Studies/Law (Hons) degree, writes regularly for The Justinian and edits the Flashers column at Seizure.