The last books I read were the “Trilogy That Shall Not Be Named” (as I feel they have had far too much publicity already). I am still in the undecided camp as to whether I liked them or not, but they were certainly “easy readers” and I could not put them down for the two days that it took me to read them.
I have been desperate for a good read since, but haven’t found any book that grasped my attention on my own bookshelves or down the library aisles. So, I had a short, self-inflicted reading celibacy. This is unlike me and I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into a good book again.
Therefore, on a well-intentioned food-only shop to Tesco recently, I found myself wandering down the book section. All those lovely, new books just waiting to be read. I was like a kid in a sweet shop and couldn’t resist.
They do say to never judge a book by its cover, but of course, it is always a factor where I’m concerned. I had to choose quickly (before the kids got bored!) so as soon as I found a cover and title that I liked; I grabbed the book and dropped it into my trolley. I didn’t even look at the author’s name at the time, but if I had, I would have been pleasantly surprised.
See what I mean? What a lovely cover! It brings me back to a time when I was on a bus in London driving past the big townhouses and wondering who lived in them and what stories they could tell. Then there’s the tea dress! The hair! The blue door! And, the satchel! I was sold!
At the end of the book, in the acknowledgments, Lucy Jewell gives thanks to Kathy Burke “for finally letting me have a photograph on my cover, like a big grown-up writer“. It was certainly a good choice for this book and I found it a lot more appealing than the pastel, drawn covers that I am seeing frequently on books at the moment.
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?
I really enjoyed this book. The title, “Before I Met You” sums it up well. We never really know anybody as well as we think we do, especially if we only meet them later on in their life. Everyone has secrets or things in their past that they have neglected to tell us. I would love to have the chance to talk to my own Grandparents and find out more about their history again.
I respected the independent character of Betty, and how Arlette had influenced her. When Elizabeth (as Betty was first known before Arlette re-christens her with the more glamorous, well-suited name, “In my day, if you were Elizabeth, you were Betty.”) first meets her Step-Father’s octogenarian mother, she is squirming about meeting “a terrible old woman whose frail bones had conspired to crumble and break and destroy (her) life.”
Her opinion, changes as she notices that Arlette is wearing “red silk shoes with matching rosettes…Surely, she thought to herself, surely anyone capable of owning a pair of shoes that magnificent must be halfway decent.”
In 1987, Betty returns to England to visit her maternal Grandmother. Her passion for London, especially seedy Soho begins there.
“She loved it for the setting, for the neon lights glistening on oily puddles, the alleyways and mysterious doorways, subterranean dives and shabby-looking people with secrets.”
Betty “still couldn’t help but see a glamour to it. A dark, ugly glamour.” I related to this, all my teenage visits to London, especially Carnaby Street, made me feel just the same way.
Lisa Jewell is a contemporary writer and I enjoyed reading references to familiar things during the eighties and nineties, from the film “Desperately Seeking Susan” to comparing the scene at Betty’s Soho party to that of a “casting queue for a Benetton advert”.
Back “home” in Guernsey, Betty puts her own life on hold to care for Arlette, her now frail and often confused Grandmother.
When Arlette dies, she unwittingly gives Betty the opportunity she has been waiting for, to start a life in London. As soon as Betty finds out about the mysterious Clara Pickle (this name kept making me fancy cheese and pickle sandwiches!) in her Grandmother’s will, she immediately vows to try her best to find her.
This is where the book takes an intriguing twist and goes for the dual time frame format, placing both her main characters slap-bang in the middle of both the mid-1990s and 1920s London.
I found it harder at first to get into the 1920’s version of Flapper London, due to the slower pace of life at that time. But, once I got into it, I was fully immersed. It was really interesting comparing Arlette’s London, right at the beginning of the Jazz scene to Betty’s just before 1990’s Brit Pop.
The characters that both Betty and Arlette meet in London are realistic, colourful, and likeable.
In Arlette’s life “before (she) met (Betty)” we find out there was a hidden tragedy. It was well written and I came away feeling that, like so often in real life, there was no one really to blame, it was caused by a couple of wrong time/wrong place scenarios.
Life is “messy” for both characters and they don’t always make the right choices the first time round.
Betty manages to solve much of Arlette’s mystery, but of course, only the readers get to know the whole story, however, the book reaches a satisfying conclusion and brings people together with greater bonds than blood, just like the connection that Arlette had with Betty.
I enjoy knowing that books have some truth to them and in the “Notes on the text”, we find out that the Southern Syncopated Orchestra was a real-life orchestra.
I would definitely recommend this book as a must-read for this Summer.
I read this book so quickly because I did not want to put it down, that it was not until I came to the end, that I realised who wrote it. This book is written by Lisa Jewell, who also wrote some of my all-time favourite books, such as Vince and Joy and The Truth About Melody Browne.
If you’ve ever read a Lisa Jewell novel before, you’ll know that she doesn’t truly belong on the “chick lit” stands. Jewell’s stories are always very well written and give a lot more than just the classic girl meets boy scenario. She always offers deeper storylines and in-depth multi-layered characters who jump out of the page at you and convince you to genuinely care about them, but in “Before I Met You” Jewells writing is taken up a notch as she perfects the dual time frame format so effortlessly.
I am now on a mission to re-read all my favourite Lisa Jewell books. I got these out at the Library last week.
I have re-read 31 Dream Street and The Truth about Melody Browne, but before I read After the Party, I want to re-read Ralph’s Party again.
I really enjoyed this Lisa Jewell book and would recommend her as an author. You can buy her other books here.
Disclaimer: This Book Review is part of the Tots 100 Summer Reading Challenge. Tots100 Book Club, in association with Tesco Books, are creating a round-up of 50 great books to read this summer. I bought this book myself and all views are my own.