Reviewed by Danielle Pullen
London, 1920. Arlette works in Liberty by day, and by night is caughty up in a glamorous whirl of parties, clubs, cocktails and jazz. But when tragedy strikes she flees the city, never to return.
Over half a century later, in the grungy mid-'90s, her granddaughter Betty arrives in London.
She can't wait to begin her new life. But before she can do so, she must find the mysterious woman named in her grandmother's will.
What she doesn't know is that her search will uncover the heartbreaking secret that changed her grandmother's life, and might also change hers for ever...
Arlette is a shop girl embroiled in the heady London jazz scene of the 1920’s. She is a sensible girl living in an extraordinary world which can only lead to tragedy.
Two generations later, Betty finds herself looking after her grandmother, Arlette, in her final days. After Arlette's death and eager to escape the confines of her small-island Guernsey life Betty takes the opportunity to escape to the bright lights of London when there are question marks over late grandmother's will and the mysterious benefactor who is set to inherit Arlette's estate. Little does Betty realise that the same factors and influences that affected her grandmother 50 years before will resurface and change the course of her life in the 1980's.
As a kingpin in the chick-lit genre, Lisa Jewell is a hugely successful author with 9 novels already under her belt. As someone who generally finds this genre a little too mainstream and predictable for her tastes, I worried that Before I Met You might not be to my taste and that I may have to criticise a clearly successful writer with an already huge audience.
I need not have worried. To place Jewell within the same pool as the plethora of mainstream women writers is to do her a grave injustice. Sure, her writing is accessible, the main protagonists are women and there is certainly a love interest or three here, but this book is incredibly well written. There is a clear sense of place. In one chapter we are transported from a smoky jazz club in Soho, listening to a clarinetist and reflecting on the flapper dresses. In the next we are whisked to a contemporary London home, complete with fuschia Aga and keeping company with a booze-fuelled rock star, his Notting Hill-set ex-wife and their three attention-craving children.
Even the minor characters in this text are well-drawn with their appearance, actions and dialogue all adding to a visually stimulating cast. The references to the various eras were convincing too. As someone who grew up in the eighties myself, I can remember Ultravox and mobile phone-free days only too well!
The covers of Jewell’s books have just been overhauled to minimise the stigmatised cartoon-and-cupcakes bindings of the usual chick-lit fare. This is a welcome change as Jewell’s writing deserves more than this. However, for me, the new cover (and the rather generic-sounding book title) still do not do the novel justice, and it certainly wouldn’t make me pick up this good read in a bookshop.
My advice? Look beyond the cover and title and give this read a go. I’ll certainly be more willing to pick up Jewell’s other titles now.
I'd like to thank Najma at Arrow for sending us a proof copy of this book to review.
Amazon links: Paperback or Kindle