on 22 January 2013
For me, curling up with a Lisa Jewell novel is like curling up with a coffee in front of a warm fire - comforting, cosy with the guarantee that it will warm the cockles of my heart. This book did not disappoint. Well-written, vivid and at once warm and funny and poignant and moving. It's a more mature read than some of Lisa's earlier novels - even with a relatively young heroine, it is less `chicklit' in feel and deals with some serious rather than frivolous themes.
I especially enjoyed the dual points of view explored in the book - of Arlette, a young woman in 1920s London, and her step-granddaughter Betty, in 1990s London. There are wonderful parallels and also juxtaposition of the women's experiences that made for a compelling and powerful read. The characters are multi-faceted and realistic and likeable, and I was rather sad by the end of the book that their story had come to an end.
For me, the best part of this book is the sense of place that the author creates. I love the island of Guernsey, so I enjoyed the descriptions of that setting, but it is London that really comes alive on the pages. Having read this book soon after finishing The Paris Wife, which depicts 1920s Paris, I found myself drawing parallels and enjoying the glimpse of life in bohemian London during that era. I think the author does a marvellous job of capturing the heart of London - Soho - without over-romanticising it. Take the following extract:
All she knew was that the day was dying and the night was giving birth to itself, and there was something electric, something magnetic pulling her down Carnaby Street, past self-consciously crazy boutiques, past grimy pubs, through the throngs of tourists and teenage girls just like her, girls from somewhere else with overblown ideas of themselves, girls having a special treat with dowdy mothers and bored father, a day in town with an early lunch at Garfunkel's, overfilled bowls from the salad bar, tickets for a West End show tucked safely in Mum's bum-bag. It wasn't real. Even to Betty's immature, small-town eyes she could see through the fakery and the stage setting. There was something both murky and beguiling beyond this plastic street of Union Jacks and Beatles posters, something grimy and flittering.
By the end of the book, I found myself wanting to visit London and the locations that feature in the story, so alive did the characters feel to me.
Of course, at the heart of the story is romance - that of Arlette and of Betty - and indeed all sorts of relationship are explored in the novel. The result is a touching and memorable book that I recommend to any reader who enjoys romance.
If you look at my other reviews you'll see that I'm not a great reader of `chick-lit' (hate that term but can't think of a better one), but I've always had a real soft spot for Lisa Jewell. She tends to get lumped in with the chick-lit writers, but I think there's much more substance to her novels compared to some of that genre, and hopefully the new direction she's taken with her latest book will win her a whole new group of fans.
It's the mid-1990s and Betty Dean is spreading her wings following the death of her beloved step-grandmother, Arlette. She leaves Guernsey on a mission to find a mysterious woman who features in her grandmother's will, the gloriously named Clara Pickle. All she has to go on is an ancient last known address and a copy of Polyanna which Arlette had inscribed with the dedication "To Little Miss Pickle".
Betty is adorable - bright, resourceful and funny, she manages to stay just the right side of quirky without becoming irritating. She arrives in Soho at an exciting time and those of us of a certain age will have fun spotting all the 90s references - Britpop and Nirvana, Primrose Hill and the Groucho Club etc. Betty's story is interspersed with flashbacks to Bohemian 1920s London, with its jazz clubs, Bright Young Things and artists painting in garrets (well a cottage in Gideon`s case). Arlette is pretty green when she arrives from Guernsey to stay with a friend of her mother`s. She soon immerses herself into the wild and exotic Soho scene but, as Betty's search reveals, heartbreak and tragedy are never far away.
Jewell usually writes about real people in real situations, set in a period (the nineties and noughties) that I can identify with and look back on with affection. I think I'm right in saying that this is her first `historical` dual-timeframe novel and, thanks to Betty's investigations, the two threads blend seamlessly together. Having said that I could've happily read a whole book featuring either storyline (the sign of a good dual-timeframe story). So, thankfully this change of style for one my favourite authors has been a resounding success as far as I'm concerned - I loved it and am really looking forward to seeing which direction her next novel takes us in.
I haven't read any of Lisa Jewell's novels before but the storyline of this one intrigued me and I almost finished it in one sitting. Guernsey is certainly making its mark in fiction nowadays although in this case very little of the novel is actually set there. It is more about the Guernsey that the young women take with them. I am sure that anyone who has moved from the Channel Islands or even from a small village into a big city themselves will be able to identify with the experiences of Arlette and Betty.
Fairy Tales provide the basis for a lot of modern fiction, for `Before I Met You' `Dick Whittington' fits quite well, at least for Arlette's story. Admittedly she isn't impoverished financially and doesn't go to find her fortune but her insular world has left her impoverished in other ways, she knows nothing about the wider world and her circle of acquaintances has been small, she goes to the big city in search of excitement and real life. Betty's story has more in common with the classic quest as she goes in search of Clara Pickles who no one in the family has ever heard of before, why has Arlette left her a bequest in her Will? As far as the family are concerned Arlette had never left Guernsey.
The 2 stories run in parallel in many respects, chapter 7, set in 1995 ends with the words `Her real life had finally begun and chapter 11, set in 1919 ends with the words `Finally her life had begun'. Music links the 2, Arlette's story is set at the start of the Jazz era and Betty's at a time when Britpop ruled the world and the first person she speaks to in Soho runs a record stall in the market, there are many more parallels and connections for the reader to discover.
`Before I Met You' is at heart a good story well told. It has believable characters that I cared about; it is infused with humour yet is also heartbreaking. Soho becomes a character in its own right as we switch between the Bohemian 1920's to the grungy 1990's, where else could this story have taken place? The dual story structure kept me reading as I wanted to know what happened to the different characters, yes I did have a very good idea of how it would end but it was how Arlette and Betty got there that is important. How does Betty discover what we, the readers, already know and how will it affect the wider family? It is apparent that Arlette always intended for Betty to go on this quest and she leaves clues to help her along the way, who would have thought that a vintage fur coat would prove to be so important?
The novel also brings into question how well we actually know the people closest to us. Maybe some readers will start to wonder about their grandparents, could they have a past they know nothing about?
on 30 August 2013
I'm not sure I can actually do this book justice. It's unlike anything else Jewell has written and that is most definitely not a bad thing. I love Lisa's books, I have done since I first moved to England. But this is so different, so powerful and haunting.
The characters leap from the page and plant themselves firmly in your mind. Betty is adorable and feisty and clever, I think we'd have been friends! John melted my heart and made me swoon, just a little bit (ok, a lot!). Dom made me cringe, as did Amy. I remember the 90′s fondly, I was 18 in 1995 and remember being completely dumbstruck by my first mobile phone!
When we switch to 1920, the transition is so easy, so seamless. Here we meet the young Arlette and her friends. This other world is opened up and I loved every second of it. The glamour, the scandal, the decadence, the hardships, the thrills of this whole new world! I felt like i was right there. Arlette's heartaches became my heartaches. I cried for her and wanted to make it all ok. I really, really cared about this girl who was living in an adult world and doing her best to find her way.
The twists and turns are so gripping, the stories and lives are so tightly woven together. New world and old world, tied together in knots and then the threads so delicately untangled to reveal truths and destinies far beyond what I expected.
If you haven't read this yet, I urge you to.
A beautiful, heartbreaking, breathtaking page turner. 5/5
on 20 August 2013
This is a perfectly fine book but no means original, extraordinary or particularly involving. The only characters I cared about all have horrible ends and the main character, Betty I found one dimensional and dull. Both of the women are repeatedly told how beautiful and amazing they are but there seems to be no textual evidence of this amazingness. Things happen to them because of how beautiful they are and there are no great surprises to the twists or reveals.
If you are looking for well written and thought provoking literature I suggest 'Me before you' by Jojo Moyes or anything written by Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve.
I am genuinely flummoxed at these remarkabale reviews for such an unremarkable story.
As a first time reader of Lisa Jewell, I was a little unsure about what to expect when I received this book as a gift; however, I was very pleasantly surprised with this enjoyable story, set in the 1920s and the 1990s, which kept me entertained from start to finish.
In the 1990s Elizabeth (Betty) comes to London from her home in Guernsey where she has spent the last few years caring for her step-father's mother, the elderly but glamorous Arlette, with her lacy stockings, her red silk shoes and her well-hidden secrets. After Arlette's death, Betty is puzzled when she discovers that Arlette has left a large sum of money in her will to the deliciously named Clara Tatiana Pickles, of whom no-one in the family seems to know anything about. Betty, who discovers that Clara's last known address was in Soho, sets off from Guernsey and arrives in London, takes a studio flat right in the heart of Soho and begins searching for the elusive Ms Pickles. Whilst searching, Betty meets a variety of interesting people including the tall, dark and gloweringly handsome market trader, John, and the infamous Dom Jones, lead singer of the band 'Wall', both of whom are attracted to the lovely Betty. As Betty says to herself as she looks around her new studio flat: "Real life has finally begun."
In the 1920s we learn about Arlette's life as a young woman - of how she left her family on Guernsey and moved to London, how she got a job in Liberty's, became the muse of a rising artist, became intimately involved with a man who would not have been considered suitable by her family, and became part of the bohemian group of people known as the 'Bright Young Things' with their parties, jazz clubs and drinking dens. But, ultimately, do we learn who Clara Pickles is, and why she was so important to Arlette?
Lisa Jewell sets her scenes effectively and she writes descriptively well of the fashions and music of the times, and she has created some engaging characters for her novel, particularly Betty who is an attractive, lively and slightly kooky individual and always the optimist - and, although I enjoyed reading about Arlette and her life, I was always keen to get back to the sections about Betty to see how her life was progressing in 1990s London. This is not a novel of great literary weight - and it's not meant to be one - and the plot doesn't bear close examination, but it is an enjoyable and undemanding holiday, down-time or bedtime read, and reading this has made me interested in looking at other books by this author for when I want something that is not too taxing but competently written.
I love Lisa Jewell's books and always go out of my way to buy any new releases she has brought out.
This was no exception, and as usual, I was immediately drawn in by the likeable characters and warm tone.
Set in Guernsey and London, the likeable Betty shows a wonderful yet non self pitying compassion toward an old lady who she regards as her grandmother. It's not giving too much away that the 94 year old dies, and a surprising mystery takes place when the will is read.
I won't fill this review with spoilers, but as usual, I was very involved with the main character Betty, and again as usual with Jewell's beautifully written novels, it was hard to believe Betty was a fictional character- so alive was she on the page. The parallel story of Arlette, Betty's grandmother, pulled at my heartstrings and left me in tears at several points. Jewell showed a talent here for being able to write in different periods and the scenes set in the 1920s rang with truth and authenticity.
Lisa Jewell is a cut above chick lit: yes she can do the boy meets girl story (Vince and Joy is a wonderful example), but she can also do friendships, parenthood, families and humour. Her writing is contemporary (she name checks eBay and Facebook in her novels), and her characters likeable (you'd want to be friends with them). At the same time, she can do good conflict without anyone being purely black and white.
I would recommend this book to anyone and I am thoroughly looking forward to a re-read in a few months time. In fact, I think this is her best yet. I am still thinking about it many days after I finished reading.
Not chick lit, just a beautifully crafted addictive story, rather beautiful in places.
When Lizzie is eleven, she goes to live in Guernsey with her mother and stepfather, and forms a close and immediate bond with her stepfather's mother Arlette, who renames her Betty and makes her her special confidante. So close do the pair become that Betty decides to go to art school in Guerney and live with Arlette rather than return to England to study, and to stay on and care for Arlette when Arlette develops dementia. And when Arlette dies, leaving a legacy in her will to a mysterious 'Clara Tatiana Pickle', who no one has heard of, it is Betty who, keen to fulfil her friend's last wish, moves to London to find the mysterious Clara Tatiana. Betty's story, as she settles down in a Soho studio flat, begins to research Arlette's past - discovering in the process that Arlette had lived in London for some years, though she always claimed she had never gone there - and finds herself courted by quiet DJ John and glamorous rock star Dominic ('Dom'), is interwoven with the story of Arlette's London adventures in the 1920s, and of the aristocratic artist and West Indian jazz musician who both loved her - with heartbreaking consequences.
This is Lisa Jewell's first part-historical novel, and in some ways her most ambitious fiction. In its favour, the book is a 'ripping yarn', which captures the glamour of the Jazz Age and sets up several romantic mysteries that ensure the reader remains interested throughout. The questions 'which man will Arlette choose?' 'What happened to Godfrey?' 'Where is Clara?' and 'will Betty choose Dom or John?' remain unanswered and intriguing long enough for the reader to remain involved throughout the book's 600 pages. There are some genuinely appealing characters - particularly John Brightly and his sister, and Godfrey Pickle - and some nice descriptions of London. It's also not heavy going in any way - I read the whole book in two and a half hours on a coach journey.
But its very lightness in tone was also for me one of the novel's weaknesses. For all its attempts to tackle 'big' themes - illegitimacy, rape, marital breakdown, poverty - 'Before I Met You' was essentially a fairly predictable romance. I found both the protagonists - the elegant young Arlette and the rebellious Betty - rather shallow women, and though Arlette obviously matured through her experiences, I found Betty remained trivial and spoilt virtually until the end. Apart from John, none of the male characters were that convincing - Godfrey was too good to be true, Dom was an adult version of the spoilt brat, and Gideon had to undergo a personality transformation (rather like the hero of Sarita Mandana's 'Tiger Hills') in order that the plot should progress as Jewell wanted it to. And I found large areas of the plot unconvincing. Would Betty really have been able to afford to rent her own flat near Exmouth Market in the 1990s? Surely by then much of the area was way out of everyone's price range - and weren't the more bohemian types such as John Brightly already moving out to areas such as Camden and Islington? How did Arlette manage to get in with the smart set (and only with the smart set - you never see her encountering poverty, apart from with the woman towards the end of the book) so easily on her arrival in London? If Arlette had a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery (and the NPG usually only shows portraits of famous people, which she wasn't) how come her family didn't know about it? Would a girl with no experience of nannying take to it immediately? What, apart from her nannying skills, did Dom Jones see in the rather bland and childish Betty? Why didn't Arlette tell Godfrey her secret? (Presumably for the same reason threatened people rarely call the police in some crime novels, because it would ruin the plot.) Also, would any girl these days (or even the 1990s) want to be called 'Betty', a name with really 1930s associations? Although some of the writing was good, there was some toe-curlingly embarrassing dialogue at times (as when Arlette described how she didn't want a boy because 'of their anatomy'), and the portrayal of the working class characters was patronizing - particularly in the letter written by the young woman to Arlette, where Jewell made the classic mistake of spelling all the simple words wrong and the complicated ones right. And I'm getting rather sick of Jewell's characters moaning about 'having to live in Zone 3' - in the expensive metropolis, it's hardly the back of beyond!
A light, and quite agreeable read, but I never felt I believed in the characters or their story wholeheartedly. I found the book a bit like gorging on a rather sweet chocolate bar - pleasant while it lasted, but not in any sense deeply satisfying.
on 7 July 2013
I am a massive Lisa Jewell fan, Ralph's Party is one of my all time favourite books and so I was very excited when this book came out. I want to catch up on the last few Lisa Jewell novels over the summer and this was the first that I chose. The book jumps between two time zones, 1920 and 1995. I have to say, I found this is little disconcerting to begin with, until I understood the significant of the two years. Betty is searching for someone mentioned in her grandmother's will, and the 1920 parts of the book, bring together the things that Betty is searching for. It tells her grandmother's story, of the people she met and how she came to be in London, as Betty is now. I have to say, I found the 1920s section of the book a little slow, and did find myself skimming parts of it. I liked the fact that it is tying everything together, but I didn't really like the character of Arlette and so wasn't THAT interested in her story...
The 1995 section of the book, I really enjoyed, I liked Betty's self discovery and the kind of capers that she got up to trying to find a job and a place in soho when she first comes over the London. I really felt for her at some points, not realising the way that life is in a big city, having come over from Guernsey. She meets a mark stall holder in front of her hideous sounding studio flat. This character I really liked, I thought John Brightly was genuine, and lovely, and on,y ever wanted to help Betty, I think he was key in tying Betty's side of the story together, and I was willing them to form a relationship right the way to the end of the book. His sister is also a wonderful character, I really enjoyed reading about Betty's animated interactions with her.
I didn't understand the significance of some of the other characters in both parts of the book. Arlette seems to mention a lot of names that then don't form any major part in the story, and there is Betty's friend Bella whom she talks to a handful of times in the book, but who doesn't really play a significant part either.
I really loved the setting of this novel, I love soho and all the mentions of the street names and locations was really fun because I could picture where Betty was and the kind of atmosphere she was experiencing. Arlette too roamed around parts of London I am familiar with, and with the added back drop of the roaring twenties, I really enjoyed reading about the well-described settings for their stories.
As much as I didn't enjoy the 1920 part of the book, I really liked the dual-setting structure. I love a novel when there are two separate parts that are linked an eventually come together at the end of the story (a bit like Ralph's Party) and so I did find that made the book read a bit quicker than it might have done if the parts hadn't been interwoven so well. This is a great book to read in the sunshine and it has a real mysterious, historical aspect to it that I really enjoyed. If you are a fan of Lisa Jewell then I'm sure you will love this novel. If you're not so keen on books that jump from time to time then this would not be for you.
I had never read a book by Lisa Jewell before, and after reading Before I Met You, I asked myself "Where have I been? How did I not know about this author?!" Lisa Jewel has such a talent for writing, her words are put together beautifully creating a book that is very hard to put down!
This book has two story lines, one set in the 1920′s and the other set a bit later on in the 1990′s, and Lisa effortlessly weaves the two stories together to create a wonderful tale. We meet Arlette, Betty's grandmother, in the 1920′s, starting a new life after the war and she takes us on an exciting journey as she explores London, meeting a mix of vibrant, individual characters, but as we learn, Arlette soon meets tragedy in her life.
Fast forward to the 90′s, and Betty is similarly exploring her life in the busy Soho part of London, on a mission to find the beneficiary in her grandmothers will. As the mystery uncovers, she is taken on a journey of Arlette's fascinating life, uncovering many secrets and discovering more about her grandmother.
Arlette and Betty are what I can only describe as beautiful characters. I loved their personalities, I really felt as though I knew them personally. In particular I was fascinated by Arlette's stories and I loved following her on her journey through the book.
This is a truly enthralling story of love, loss, determination and self-discovery. It gripped me right from the beginning, I became very emotionally involved, couldn't put it down, and I must say, the story touched my heart.
This is an intriguing, charming book that has been beautifully written. I'm very much looking forward to reading more of Lisa Jewell's novels.