31st Jul 2012
Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell
Her latest novel, Before I Met You, is a twist on what feels like a rapidly expanding genre – one which, for want of a better phrase, we might term Woman-Finds-Secret-History-Within-Subplot-and-Makes-Better-Life-Choices-Accordingly.
When 22-year-old Betty – who has led a sheltered existence on the island of Guernsey – loses her grandmother, she longs to escape and move to the bright lights of Soho.
Meanwhile, her grandmother’s will reveals up a mysterious beneficiary – one Clara Pickle, who Betty must find so that she can deliver the life-changing sum of money.
Betty moves to London and installs herself in a studio flat in the middle of Soho, which happens to overlook the house of recently disgraced pop star Dom.
She soon discovers that life in mid-90s Britpop-obsessed Soho isn’t quite so glamorous when you have to make ends meet.
However, what with being young and beautiful, things soon work for Betty as she meets a string of colourful characters – including record store owner John, his fashion-obsessed sister and the collection of weird neighbours.
Woven through Betty’s story is the ‘mystery’ of Clara Pickle. This is also the story of Arlette, 1920s Bloomsbury Bright Young Thing, and her love for the Jamaican jazz clarinettist Sandy Beaches.
As the two stories merge, the parallels between Betty and Arlette are drawn out, and the two scenes – 1920s Bloomsbury and 1990s Primrose Hill/Soho – are shown as the heady, ephemeral fads they were.
This book is a love letter to London. Like most of Jewell’s writing, the sense of place and pleasure runs throughout the novel. It all seems terribly, terribly exciting – if a little shallow.
It is a real shame, then, that Before I Met You is such a clunky read. The characters develop in strange directions, and, stirring as Betty’s story is, it is so fantastical that I found it hard to swallow. Arlette’s tale is sometimes rushed, and although there are some well-written moments, her voice lacks an authentic ring.
All in all, Before I Met You disappointed slightly – but as a beach read or something for a rainy Sunday (more likely this summer!) it would be perfect. If you’ve read any Lisa Jewell before, however, be warned – this isn’t her usual style.
The wit that is so central to her writing comes through in the sections set in the 1990s far more so than in the 1920s. The book could have done with tighter editing, but it remains a fun and engaging look at jazz-era London, and the treatment and experience of race and racial difference in early 20th-century London.
Recommended for: Fans of Kate Morton, the 20s, and Londoners (native and adopted).