The best love stories happen at a very specific moment in time, everything poised on the brink. Less than five years ago George W Bush was still president, the global economy solvent, and Ireland was still – just – giddily prosperous. In a short space of time the world would look very different. But that's the state of play when New Yorker Bruno – early 50s, twice divorced – loses his job with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and finds himself on a plane to Dublin to reconnect with distant relations.
His relations are Addie, an out-of-work architect, forlorn at 38 after a failed relationship and a lost baby, and Hugh, her surgeon father, dependent for the first time in his life after a fall has left him with broken wrists. They are, at this specific moment, in no fit state for company – least of all that of a "frighteningly cheerful" American relative.
Still, love stories also demand inauspicious beginnings and unlikely pairings. While Addie would have once considered a banker "an even worse prospect than a serial killer", she immediately knows this is the start of a romance, and the pair fall into an easy, fun-and-sex-filled love affair. Despite Bruno's bafflement at Addie's lack of interest in her country's history ("I know it's historic, this river, I just can't remember why"), they have a relaxed, unquestioning enjoyment of each other. Then Obama wins, and "it was like the world had found a new lover", and for a while Addie and Bruno are happy. But then it ends, in a way that, for all its foreshadowing, still shocks and devastates. Some significant time after reading, I still haven't quite come to terms with it.
It's impossible to look away from this love story – it is unexpectedly quirky, grown-up but pleasingly whimsical. Watching Addie cross over from her dark lonely place, accepting her single status, to girlish glowing happiness is enough to have you cheering out loud. It's Addie's story really, this – the story of her and her sister, Della, her cantankerous relic of a father, and the mother who died when they were kids. It's also the story of the country that changed around them as they got older, and of its last hurrah at the only prosperous moment in its downtrodden history.
Addie may be struggling when we meet her, still trying to reconcile growing up without a mother, wondering how relationships and marriage happen so easily for some and not others, unsure if she has the energy to launch into another love affair ("all the questions she would have to ask and all the answers she would have to give"). But she's cool and funny and she carries this novel with the charisma of a classic heroine.
This Is How It Ends may not have the cross-gender appeal to become this year's One Day, but be warned: it will leave you a weeping mess just as Em and Dex's story did. It will also leave you feeling utterly bereft to no longer be in its company. A year ago, as Ireland admitted defeat and asked for a bailout, the hefty six-figure advance MacMahon (a journalist with Ireland's national broadcaster, RTÉ) received for her debut novel was one of the few good news stories in the Irish press. I hope it goes on to sell enough copies to kickstart the Irish economy.
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