Sometimes, you run across a book with characters that you just can’t get out of your head. Characters that feel so real to the point that finishing the story physically hurts. Until the Last Star Fades by Jacquelyn Middleton is one of these books.
Set in the same “universe” as London Belongs to Me and London, Can You Wait?, Jacquelyn’s previous two novels, Until the Last Star Fades is a beautiful story about love in all of its forms. Part romance, part women’s fiction, this novel explores many nuanced aspects of the modern young woman’s experience.
While the first two books in this universe take place across the pond in London, Until the Last Star Fades follows Tisch student Riley Hope and down-on-his-luck British actor Ben Fagan as they try to make their way in the ever-bustling New York City. While Riley struggles under the weight of her depression and her mother’s cancer diagnosis, Ben quietly battles his own invisible demons. But, as these two wayward souls find out, there’s strength in friendship and in love.
I’m just going to throw it out there straightaway: I can’t even begin to put into words how much I loved this novel. From charismatic characters to honest discussions of depression and all of the ’80s music my heart could stand, there isn’t a single aspect of this novel that I didn’t fall head-over-heels for. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down, spending six hours in bed on a Sunday morning glued to the story.
And after I finished? I had an even more difficult time getting out of bed. Jacquelyn Middleton writes in such a way where you can’t help but empathize with every emotion the main characters feel, going so far as to put you in their shoes while events unfold. Not only that, but her characters come to life in such an organic way that finishing her novels causes emotional pain.
When I finally put this book down, I felt as if I, myself, had loved and lost. I had both gotten to know Riley and Ben so intimately and fallen in love with Ben through Riley’s eyes that it was really difficult for me to transition back into my own life. The heartache and longing that comes with finishing Until the Last Star Fades is a testament to Middleton’s brilliant writing and characterizations.
Now none of the characters in this novel are perfect by any means. Not by a longshot. Riley and Ben are both equally lovable and frustrating at times. But it’s their flaws and attempts to overcome their shortcomings, rather than just accepting their current situations, that make them truly endearing.
Riley Hope, the main character in this novel, is an interesting character in that she’s one that I don’t come across all that often. Though I don’t personally relate to her circumstances (supporting a sick parent, not having enough money to cover rent or food, having an incredibly attractive British man’s affection) and disagreed with some of the decisions she makes (especially one that comes early in the novel), I relate to who she is at her core.
While she may look like another carefree college student, her smile masks the turmoil and darkness that lives inside. Riley’s personal struggle with Smiling Depression made me relate to her more than any other aspect of her character ever could. Though I don’t suffer from Smiling Depression specifically, my personal experience with depression meant that I felt each and every negative thought and exhausting display of normalcy that Riley is forced to endure.
Nobody wants to be the sad friend who always complains or mopes, so we who have depression make it our job to put on a good face and keep others from feeling as sad and low as we constantly do. Every time Riley stops what she’s doing to take care of a friend or her mom and make them feel better, I could feel the ache that undoubtedly radiates from her smile as she struggles to keep her cover.
My experience with depression allowed me to connect with Riley more than I’ve ever connected with any other character before simply because mental health isn’t a subject that’s often discussed in literature. And if it is, it’s the driving force of the narrative rather than a fact of being. But, in Until the Last Star Fades, depression isn’t the driving force in Riley’s life. It’s just a part of who she is and, though it really sucks, she wouldn’t quite be the wonderful person that she is without it.
Jacquelyn Middleton’s open and honest discussions of mental health in this novel take a really difficult subject and make it accessible for those who have never experienced that kind of struggle. Not only that, but they make those of us who have felt those twinges and explored the depths of those low-lows feel less alone. Though I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, Until the Last Star Fades reinforces the fact that those of us with depression deserve the same kind of love that we put out in the world, regardless of what our brains may tell us.
That all being said, Riley is so much more than her depression. She’s an independent and highly intelligent woman who works hard for everything in life and values her relationships with her inner circle. Though every day is a struggle for her, Riley never fails to show up when the people she loves need her. Riley Hope feels more real than most characters in the world today.
Middleton describes Riley’s relationship with her mom as one that puts Lorelai and Rory’s relationship on Gilmore Girls to shame and I’ve never read a more accurate statement. This mother-daughter duo is so in-sync and wonderful to watch as they have a healthy relationship that’s not portrayed often in books and on screens. Unlike Rory and Lorelai, Riley and her mother still respect and maintain mother-daughter boundaries, but they’re incredibly and unquestionably supportive of each other.
While Riley needs to take on the caregiver and motherly role at times in their relationship, she does it selflessly and out of love. She and her mother live for each other, constantly empowering one another and looking out for each other’s best interests. Though Riley has close relationships with other characters, it’s clear that her bond with her mother surpasses her connection with all others.
That is, until Ben Fagan comes along.
Ben Fagan, the novel’s male lead, is absolutely swoon-worthy. Perhaps even more so than Mark Keegan (the dashing young man in Middleton’s London books who stole the hearts of numerous readers worldwide) because he feels real. Sure, he’s a bit of a sleazebag at first, but he has a heart of gold. He’s a deeply caring and compassionate individual who, like Riley, hides his pain with a smile and the things he does for others.
Though I love Riley and exploring the depths of her mind, the chapters told from Ben’s perspective are some of the most interesting. Sometimes we as readers put male leads on pedestals because we’re blind to their thought processes. I liked getting to know Ben, through both how Riley sees him and how he sees himself. My only (small) complaint here was that the chapters’ points of view weren’t clearly marked, so it took me a few moments at the beginning of each new chapter to figure out whose perspective I was reading.
Though Riley and Ben are great characters on their own, they’re even more so when they’re together. From the moment they meet, their chemistry is off the charts. They maintain their own identities while exploring their relationship, but they could easily be that gross couple that finishes each other’s sentences. They’re that in-sync and adorable. The friends-to-lovers trope can be a difficult one to get right (mainly because there’s always the tendency to skip over some of the most important aspects of friendship in the rush to get to the “good stuff”), but Until the Last Star Fades really takes its time with every stage of their relationship and knocks it out of the park.
One important aspect of the novel that really helps their romance unfold in such a natural way is Ben and Riley’s bonding over ’80s music (and not just popular hits from the decade, but deep cuts as well). They create Spotify playlists for each other (which you can actually listen to while reading their story), curating songs that they think the other would enjoy or deeply relate to. As their relationship develops, those songs become more and more personal, both to the playlist creator as well as the listener.
What starts as a fun challenge soon becomes a way for the couple to communicate how they’re feeling and become vulnerable in a way that feels comfortable for them. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. (That and just the amount of ’80s love in this novel is enough to make any aficionado of the decade swoon.)
Lastly, without spoiling anything or giving any fun surprises away, I want to take the opportunity to tease that the London Belongs to Me and London, Can You Wait? connections in Until the Last Star Fades are *so* much fun and come at the most unexpected moments. They add a bit of color to each scene they pop up in and, while they’re not completely necessary in understanding what’s going on in this novel, each little mention is like a warm hug from Jacquelyn Middleton.
Like London, Can You Wait?, Until the Last Star Fades novel plays simultaneously cruel and beautiful games with the heart, but it’s so much more than that. Until the Last Star Fades is an incredibly moving story of love, relationships, and celebrating the time you have with the important people in your life. This novel is one that readers of romance, women’s fiction, and YA should not hesitate to pick up as its one that will stick with you long after you’ve turned the final page. Read this novel and your heart will thank you.