‘Having grown up on the quiet island of Guernsey, Betty Dean can't wait to start her new life in London. On a mission to find Clara Pickle - the mysterious beneficiary in her grandmother's will - she arrives in grungy, 1990s Soho, ready for whatever life has to throw at her. Or so she thinks...In 1920s bohemian London, Arlette - Betty's grandmother - is starting her new life in a time of post-war change. Beautiful and charismatic, Arlette is soon drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. But less than two years later, tragedy strikes and she flees back to Guernsey for the rest of her life. As Betty searches for Clara, she is taken on a journey through Arlette's extraordinary time in London, uncovering a tale of love, loss and heartbreak. Will the secrets of Arlette's past help Betty on her path to happiness?’
Betty has spent years putting her own dreams on hold whilst looking after her elderly grandmother, Arlette, in a big, old house on the island of Guernsley. When Arlette dies, leaving a mystery London-based benefactor some money in her will, Betty heads to Soho, determined to fulfil her grandmother’s wishes and more than ready for her life to truly begin. What Betty discovers will change everything she thought she knew about her grandmother, and possibly herself as well.
‘Before I Met You’ seamlessly flits between 1920s and 1990s London, and I loved reading about both periods, although the 1920s scenes did hold a particular fascination for me. Lisa must have had so much fun researching the music and clothes of the era! One brilliant addition to the tale was the use of genuine historical facts about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a group who toured the UK during 1919-1921. The information is very cleverly weaved into the story, which was not only extremely interesting, but resulted in the culmination of Arlette’s time in London being all the more poignant.
I adored both of the story’s heroines. Betty was so caring to Arlette and so brave going off to London all by herself, especially when she’d had so little experience of cities or even renting a flat as she’d been stuck on Guernsey for so long. She doesn’t let anything get her down for long, and meets some fascinating characters along the way. The choices she faces are tough, and I had almost as hard a time as she did trying to decide what she should do for the best.
As for Arlette, her London life starts off just as life for a 1920s girl about town should – she’s pretty, has fabulous clothes and plenty of friends to ‘gad about with’! When circumstances go against her it just seems so unfair because she really is the last person to deserve such bad luck! She has a wonderful dignity throughout, which I found very engaging and made me warm to her.
Lisa Jewell has proved again and again that she’s one of the finest writers of women’s fiction around, and with ‘Before I Met You’ she’s produced another very good read. She’s an author whose new novels I eagerly anticipate and she immediately goes to the top of my ‘to read’ pile. She’s going to have a hard time topping this with her next offering!
4 and a half stars
In a hospice in Bury St Edmunds, a man called Daniel is slowly fading away. His friend Maggie sits with him every day; she holds his hand and she listens to the story of his life, to his regrets and to his secrets. And then he tells her about the children he has never met and never will. He talks of them wistfully. His legacy, he calls them. Lydia, Dean and Robyn don’t know each other. Yet. And they are all facing difficult changes. Lydia is still wearing the scars from her traumatic childhood and although she is wealthy and successful, her life is lonely and disjointed. Dean is a young man, burdened with unexpected responsibility, whose life is going nowhere. And Robyn wants to be a doctor, just like her father – a man she’s never met. But is her whole life built on an illusion?
Three people leading three very different lives. All lost. All looking for something. But when they slowly find their way into each other’s lives, everything starts to change …
‘The Making of Us’ describes the coming together of Frenchman Daniel Blanchard’s children as he lies dying in a hospice in Bury St Edmunds. Daniel donated sperm to a fertility clinic in London many years ago, but never told anyone. Now, as he nears the end of his life, Daniel tells his secret to his friend Maggie and asks her do one thing for him before he dies: find out something about the children he fathered.
Twenty-nine year old Lydia is the eldest of Daniel’s progeny. Her life has changed inextricably from her troubled upbringing in a small Welsh town; nowadays she’s extremely rich and living in a beautiful house in London. But money can’t buy happiness, and Lydia is lonely and unfulfilled. However, thanks to a mysterious letter, she’s discovered that the angry, bitter man who raised her was not actually her father. Some further investigation brings the news that she has siblings and Lydia wonders whether getting in touch with them make her life more complete.
Next is Dean who’s at a low point in his life: he’s only twenty one, but his life is a mess, and when his girlfriend Sky dies, leaving him to look after new-born baby Isadora, he doesn’t think he’s up the challenge. Can the support of his newfound sisters give him the strength to sort himself out and become a good dad to his baby?
The youngest of the trio, Robyn, has always known that her father was a sperm donor. If anything she’s enjoyed the faint air of glamour that her French parentage lent her during her pampered Essex upbringing. She’s determined to become a doctor like her biological father, and is off to study medicine at university. But something doesn’t feel quite right as she starts this new chapter in her usually perfect life.
The characters were delightful, and their worries and feelings were completely believable. And, although the main protagonists are very different, and come from widely contrasting backgrounds, they do, ultimately, gel. Lisa Jewell uses alternating viewpoints incredibly well and it’s lovely to see the characters through their siblings’ eyes. I thought the concept of the trio coming together and tentatively trying to form a relationship was very original and made for a real page-turner. Naturally flawed, the characters were so lovable and vulnerable that I was moved to tears several times.
I adored all of Daniel’s children, and Dean in particular. His actions at the beginning of the novel made me think he’d be my least favourite of the three, but he was frustratingly captivating and brilliantly written: he’s 21, but acts much younger and he’s so infuriating that you almost want to prod him out of his apathy and force him to pull himself together. It’s wonderful to see how he comes out of his shell as the book progresses; a turning point being his support of Lydia on a trip to uncover the truth behind her mother’s untimely death.
This novel has everything: an intriguing plot, wonderful writing, great characters and the ability to draw out of the reader all sorts of emotions. It contains some extremely funny moments, often concerning Lydia and her crush on her personal trainer, as well as very moving episodes, especially those set at the hospice. Lisa Jewell’s works really seem to have taken a step up in recent years, and I think she can be now very firmly placed in the same league as authors such as David Nicholls and Rosy Thornton.
4 and a half stars