Tender by Belinda McKeon

When it comes to Belinda McKeon’s novel, Tender, my first thought was that the final destination was better than much of the journey. That sounds harsh but I’ll explain.

The story is told from the perspective of Catherine. She’s from a small town in Ireland, and arrives at university naive, overwhelmed, and desperate to immerse herself in Dublin life. She shares a flat with two other students, through which she meets James. James is adventurous, charismatic, and artistic. He encourages Catherine to go after what she wants, and they soon become close friends, sharing nights out, deep conversations, and hungover mornings. However, as the years progress, Catherine and James begin to move in different directions, and Catherine discovers she is not ready to let James go.

It would be easiest to review this novel with a couple of spoilers but I don’t do spoilers, so I’ll keep my comments broad.

Primarily, I felt the emotional plot line wavered. Catherine and James’s friendship begins in a believable way, and the scene when they first meet (over breakfast in the share house) is excellent with great dialogue that was easily relatable. I felt myself transported back to uni days when mornings constituted greasy breakfasts and a dissection of the goings-on of the night before.

However, their friendship develops very quickly, and their neediness – I’d go so far as to label it co-dependence – is expressed a little too intensely. It didn’t feel truly plausible, particularly on Catherine’s part but perhaps given her desire to fit in with her fellow students, it was possible. Possible but I didn’t invest in the way that I’m sure McKeon intended.

It was not that she did not want him to be happy; it was that she could not deal with the idea that it was others who could make him happy, as he seemed to be now. She wanted him to be only her friend. She wanted the best of his attention; she wanted the highest pitch of his energy; she wanted to be the reason he was fascinated, delighted, amused.

McKeon’s writing is solid and every so often, I stopped to reread sentences. I particularly liked this one –

Songs that had the exact shape of your heartbreak: they were the songs you had to cross the room to turn off.

Because yes, we’ve all been there (I may have listened to this more times than was absolutely necessary over a boy in second year uni).

And so I return to my opening statement – because although it didn’t feel quite believable as I was reading, when I put the book down, I was reminded that when you’re 19, and finding the boundaries of new friendships and relationships, sometimes you do try too hard. And the feelings are overwhelming. And after a few pints (because you’re new to pints as well), you say or do things that are mortifying the next day.


She ripped open her sandwich: chicken and stuffing, the same thing they had every day. “I’m bleedin’ starving.”

5 responses

  1. I remember thinking that despite the claustrophobic co-dependence of their relationship, Catherine was not a particularly nice person. With hindsight, I think the story is reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s work … which it predates by at least five years.

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