6 August 2012
Book Review: Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell
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?"
While I've always been a fan of Lisa Jewell, I feel like I have still a lot of her back catalogue of books to read, and not enough time to read them in! I really enjoyed her last release, The Making of Us which was a fantastic book about adoption amongst other various things, and I felt like Jewell was trying to do something different with her fiction, and make up sit up and realise what a great author she is. Well, when I saw the cover for her 2012 book Before I Met You, I knew more than ever that Jewell was going in a totally new direction and I was right. This book is a dual-narrative, dual-time period novel, something Jewell hasn't attempted before and feels like a total breakaway from her previous books. Did it work? Oh, did it ever.
The book tells the story of two women living in very different times, going through two totally different life experiences. First of all there's Betty, who is living in Soho in London in the mid 1990's. She's come there with a purpose - to find who the beneficiary of her grandmother's will is, just a mystery name 'Clara Pickle' and nothing more to go on. Betty is sure living in London will be glamorous and she'll find the mystery Clara, but when she settles there, she realises life in London isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Then there's her grandmother Arlette, recently passed away but we're taken back to her life in the 1920's as a young girl, starting out on her own in London, and finding her feet in the big wide world. When she meets jazz singer Geoffrey and painter Gideon, she doesn't count on going on the biggest and most shocking adventure of her life, but what tragedy forces her back home to Guernsey once more, never to return to London again?
I have to confess that I did find the start of the book a bit slow, and did wonder where it was going at first. We join a young Betty along with her mother and step-dad moving from their home over to Guernsey to take care of Arlette who has been taken ill. Things quickly catch up to a more modern time, to Arlette's passing and this is when the action takes hold, and we start having the dual stories of Betty and Arlette alongside each other. Jewell manages both narratives very well, and I found it easy to switch between the two, and managing two sets of characters easily too. They're both written in the third person, allowing us to fully see all of the action, but still following Arlette and Betty respectively closely. They aren't exactly one chapter each, but it doesn't matter, and switches at an appropriate time, and as I said it was very easy to read. I looked forward to both of the stories equally which was also great, as sometimes I can find one too dull, but Jewell really kept up the pace of both of the women's lives.
I have to say Jewell writes so convincingly about each time period too, and has clearly done her research. The 1990's was probably the easiest to write about, the music, the clothes and things being much more recent and in people's memories far more. However, the 1920's part of the story in a way was more captivating, I really was taken back almost 100 years ago and discovering the world with a nervous Arlette, unsure of how to act, how to behave and what to do with her life. I was hoping that she'd make the right choices, and it's fair to say her life wasn't smooth sailing, and I felt incredibly sorry for Arlette, especially as she felt she was making the right moral choices, even if they weren't necessarily the right ones for her. I admired Betty a lot as she was determined to the right thing by her aunt, and find the will's beneficiary, and I liked how she had the guts to keep going even when she was really fed up.
Jewell's writing is really taken to another level in this book, and was an utter joy to read from beginning to end. As I've said the dual narrative story works so well, and you will find yourself wanting more hours in the day to read on and find out what happens with Arlette and Betty in the end. I really loved this book, from the likeable characters, and that includes the more minor characters too, including Gideon, Geoffrey, Dom Jones, and John Brightly too, they were all so well written and believable characters. I loved how it's the story of two women from one family (well, sort of!) getting used to their new lives in London in different times, and how things have changed between the generations. Jewell effortlessly writes in both times, and makes us really care about Arlette and Betty, and what shapes these women as people - 2 "coming of age" stories in one really. An emotional, wonderful novel, one that you'll devour from cover to cover.
You can buy Before I Met You as a paperback or an eBook now!