“It’s like everyone around you has a copy of the script of life, but no one gave it to you so you have to go in blind and hope you can muddle your way through. And you’ll be wrong most of the time.”
In 1991, Annika is an English major at the University of Illinois. She struggles with social situations, finding the behaviour of others confusing, which contributes to her anxiety. The calming and comforting forces in her life are books and the solitude and challenge of chess. When Jonathan transfers to the University of Illinois and joins the chess club he is drawn to Annika and over time the two develop a relationship that turns into a love story, one where they are planning a future together. That is until a tragedy changes everything and their lives go in separate directions. A decade later, a chance encounter brings the two together. Annika is in her dream job as a librarian and Jonathan is the Wall Street businessman he strived to be, fresh off a divorce and seeking a new start. The attraction between them is still very much there, but they need to confront their past, what drove them apart and the fears and anxieties that still persist.
The Girl He Used To Know is quickly turning into a much loved book, and while there are aspects that I liked very much, the complete package did not work for me. The big positive is Annika herself, who is a wonderfully developed character. I loved her voice and found her struggles and feelings so well portrayed that it was easy to see and experience the world through her perspective. Also, her friendship with Janice is truly heartwarming. The novel shifts from Annika to Jonathan’s perspective as well as time jumps from their time in University to a decade later when they meet again. This did feel a little jumbled to me, however I did listen to this on audio so it could just be the format itself and perhaps the written version doesn’t feel as disjointed.
The first half of the novel is captivating enough as we get to know Annika and her growing relationship with Jonathan, but as the story shifts to their present interactions, the things we learn really distorts the loving view of their relationship. I had issues with Jonathan’s character, which kicked in during the last third of the novel and came to a point where I was actually cringing (talk about a red flag in a relationship). It just made me feel sad. Sad for Annika. Sad for what started off as such a captivating novel. And then that ending that felt completely tacked on, too dramatic for the story, and somewhat emotionally manipulative. Also, the plot device used to initially separate the characters and end their romance felt unnecessarily dramatic as well. What it did accomplish was to show what a piece of work Jonathan was. As strong a character as Annika is, she deserved a story that was her own and the romance could have been just a part of it. And she definitely deserved better than Jonathan.