[As published on AllinLondon.co.uk]
Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell
Published by Century, £9.99
If you’ve ever read a Lisa Jewell novel before, you’ll know that she doesn’t belong on the chick-lit stands. Despite being classed as a girlie favourite, we’ve always found Jewell’s stories to give a bit more than those classic girl-meets-boy tales. For a start, she offers more of a storyline with in-depth characters who immediately jump out of the pages.
Naturally, all of these are part-of-the-parcel for such a triumphant writer – so in her latest read, Before I Met You she takes an even bigger turn from the norm. She goes for the dual-timeframe format, placing her characters slap-bang in the middle of both the mid-1990s and 1920s London.
Can Ms Jewell pull it off? Let’s see…
It’s the 1990s and a young Betty Dean is mourning the loss of her much-loved step-grandmother Arlette. Having become very close to her step-grandmother (her mother’s boyfriend moved the family to Guernsey to care for her when Betty was young), she is naturally devastated – but even more so, surprised – when Arlette’s will reveals a mystery benefactor, Clara Pickle, that no one in the family has heard of.
So, leaving her home in Guernsey, Betty decides to venture to London, where she goes looking for this mysterious Clara Pickle. All she has is an old address to go on – and as she arrives on the wild Soho scene in a time where Brit Pop is taking over and everyone drinks at the Groucho Club, Betty’s complex search begins to fall into place.
Meanwhile, back in the Bohemian 1920s London, we learn more about Arlette – she too has left Guernsey to experience the exciting and wonderful jazz scene taking over the Capital. She throws herself into life there, embracing the brassy clubs and obscure new fashions. But as her step-granddaughter is still to find, Arlette’s life was far from perfect and she faces some great tragedy ahead.
Full of description and colour, Jewell’s writing brings alive both the characters of Betty and Arlette. For us London-lovers though, her ability to write about the capital in the 1920s as if it were in her own lifetime, just lights up the entire book.
Her details are plentiful, so much so that you too will feel you are amongst the Flapper dresses and cigarette girl scene. The 90s part is something you will look back on fondly – a time most of us remember well and loved.
It’s no easy feat writing a tale in two timeframes but Ms Jewell has perfected the skill. This clever story of dedication and love comes packaged with intelligence, beauty and warmth. A great summer read.