Review: So Happy It Hurts by Anneliese Mackintosh

Anneliese Mackintosh’s novel, So Happy It Hurts, does what many before it have done, chronicling the struggles of a thirty-something woman with alcohol dependency and relationship problems. At first glance, Otilla McGregor is Manchester’s answer to The Girl on the Train’s Rachel Watson. But the novel is, in fact, incredibly real and heartfelt. McGregor is infinitely likeable and I rooted for her without question. 

Otilla McGregor is living in Manchester with her annoying flatmate Laurie and is in an illicit relationship with her womanising boss. She drinks every night with her best friend, Grace, having lost her father to cancer three years previously. McGregor relies on her drinking habits to dull the anxiety she feels towards her sister, Mina, who has complex medical conditions and has been hospitalised multiple times. 

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After one rough New Year’s Eve, McGregor decides to stop drinking and get her life in order. As part of this, she begins seeing a therapist. She also develops a relationship with Thales, a Greek man who works in the cafe attached to the cancer centre where Otilla works.

Told through a series of diary entries, therapy transcripts, letters, emails and texts, So Happy It Hurts is perfectly imperfect and the jumble of information these provide only adds to the delight I felt when reading it. 

So Happy It Hurts is part of a growing movement aiming to put Manchester at the centre of culture in the UK

Otilla and Thales are so impressively written because they are real. Nothing about them is perfect: they have flaws and faults just like everyone, which they admit to and work on. Both are frank about their sexualities and, although played for humour, this reveals how genuine they both are. It is not often in literature that both characters in a relationship are described as openly LGBTQ and it is done so casually. Mackintosh is a master of slipping in information: blink and you’ll miss it.

At first, I was startled by the character of Alice, McGregor’s mother. But I slowly warmed to her, particularly when her relationship with Mina and the loss of her husband was explored in more depth in the second half of the novel. Otilla’s family are equally complex and flawed people, as real as anyone you might see on the street. 

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Upon finishing the book, I decided that I wasn’t a fan. I would now like to retract that, although there are weak patches in the middle. I was going about it all wrong. What I expected from this novel was not what I got and I almost made the mistake of thinking that this impacted its quality. It is not action-packed. I kept waiting for the ‘fall’ to come: it is a formula that many novels and films take, the character’s arc follows a normal-high-low-high path to happiness. 

McGregor’s fall never comes, at least not in a big way. It is truly an internal narrative. Otilla’s recovery and self-improvement is what drives the story, her charm replacing the need for action or plot points. 

It is funny, heart-warming and heart-breaking, something that lets Anneliese Mackintosh’s talent shine through.

But the novel is more than just a pleasant read. Earlier, I drew comparison to The Girl on the Train. When the trope of troubled women in their early thirties first emerged, London was usually the setting of choice. Now, smaller cities and quaint towns are a popular choice. But it is still rare to see the North of England represented in this kind of crossover between literary and popular fiction. 

So Happy It Hurts is part of a growing movement aiming to put Manchester at the centre of culture in the UK, appropriate to its size and contribution to the UK arts scene. Not only is this novel sweet, relatable and disruptive, it brings attention to a wider issue in contemporary publishing.

Regional culture deserves celebrating and this novel is a good step towards a wider recognition of it in the national literary scene. It is funny, heart-warming and heart-breaking, something that lets Anneliese Mackintosh’s talent shine through. A rare, universal thing that is a definite must for any reading list. 

So Happy It Hurts by Anneliese Mackintosh is published by Penguin. Consider buying a copy from one of Greater Manchester’s independent book shops.