Firstly, I should apologise for not having posted an entry in such a long time. Unfortunately, with life, work and family I have not found the time to be able to sit down and write something worthwhile. Luckily, I have had time to read and as soon as I finished Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell, I wanted to tell you about it.
Lisa Jewell is an author I have ignored for quite some time. Thinking of her as a “fluffy, chic lit” author I have always been far too quick to dismiss her works as well, fluffy chic lit! I am more than happy to admit after finishing the gem of a novel that I was sorely mistaken! I came across Before I Met You whilst grocery shopping and was attracted first by the beautiful cover, so I flipped it over to have a quick glance at the synopsis and as soon as I realised it was set in the 1920’s I knew I had to read it. 1920’s London, the days of jazz music, smoking, flapper girls and Bright Young Things. Youngsters, who following the turbulent and traumatic days of the war found themselves seduced by the glamour, opulence and electrifying nightlife of London and in particular, the sexy, smoky jazz clubs of Soho.
Our story begins over half a century later, in the mid 90’s. Ten year old Betty Dean has been uprooted from her comfortable existence and deposited on the windswept island of Guernsey to live with her mum’s new boyfriend and his aging mother, Arlette.
“Elizabeth lifted her gaze to the woman in front of her, but not before noticing, with some surprise, that the woman was wearing red silk shoes, adorned with matching rosettes. Elizabeth’s gaze also took in black lacy tights over shapely calves, and then a coat of full, luxuriant mink that hung from throat to mid-shin, and a face, round and elfin, like the face of a child, pink lips, pearly blue eyelids and a matching mink hat. On each earlobe a small chunk of diamond shone dully in the muted candlelight.”
From the moment I met Arlette, I had a sense that she was not your average twin set and pearls wearing Nana. This was a woman whose beauty and elegance had once shone as brightly as the diamonds still twinkling in her ears, a woman who had grown up around a kind of glamour and prestige that those of us who came of age in the grungy 1990’s could only ever dream about and read about between the pages of a novel. Like Betty, I was enthralled by Arlette and desperate to know her, to hear of her adventures, her romances and the loves and losses that sent her fleeing from London, never to return. Betty is fascinated with Arlette and we see a tender, loving relationship develop between the pair as Betty nurses her elderly grandmother through the last years of her life. When Arlette dies, her will reveals a mysterious benefactor by the name of Clara Pickle. Who is Clara and what does she have to do with Arlette? Betty, by now in her early twenties, sets off to London to find out.
Betty arrives in Soho and meets a variety of interesting characters including the handsome market trader, John Brightly and disgraced Brit Pop star Dom Jones. Betty is a wonderful character, sweet, pretty and fun and does not fail to attract a number of love interests of her own. Told in dual time, the reader is able to draw on a number of comparisons between Arlette and Betty’s lives. Arlette of course, growing up in the 1920’s an era famous for its jazz bands, Betty in the 1990’s when Brit Pop ruled the world. We see both women, torn between two men, unsure of whether to follow their hearts or their heads
“Here she was, torn between the man who kept her safe and the man who made her feel mad with wanting.”
As with any dual time novel, there is always one voice that stands out and although I was fond of Betty, Arlette completely stole the show. Her story is so captivating that I wanted to dive straight into the pages, into the vividly painted picture of 1920’s London, it made me want to bob my hair, throw on some jazz, smoke cigarettes and dance the night away.
Early in her story, we see Arlette meet Gideon, an eccentric artist who finds himself taken with Arlette and her beauty and begs to paint her portrait. Arlette and Gideon strike up a close friendship immediately and the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is Gideon who is to steal her heart. I was sceptical. To me, Gideon did not seem special enough to enrapture a lady such as Arlette, I found him to be weak, flaky and somewhat annoying and struggled to see what Arlette could love about him. It is Gideon who introduces Arlette to the jazz scene and before long another love interest quite literally sails into her life and steals her heart. Godfrey Pickle is an exceptional character, he is handsome, strong and talented and I could see immediately how Arlette could fall madly in love with him.
“He beamed at her, then sauntered, slow as a snail, towards the pouffe where he arranged himself in such a way that he looked for all the world as if he were waiting to have his portrait painted.”
It is important to remember that whilst there was never racial segregation in London, inter-racial relationships would have been heavily frowned upon during this time and a West Indian gentleman sauntering through the halls of an upmarket department store with a beautiful, middle class English girl on his arm would have been something of an unusual and perhaps to some, alarming sight. A lesser character than Godfrey may have hidden away, would not have dared to romance an English Rose in the broad light of day and sass an elderly lady who presumed his only reason to be in such a place was to polish her shoes. But then Godfrey is no ordinary character, Godfrey is a world famous clarinettist, the greatest clarinettist of his generation and member of the world famous Southern Syncopated Orchestra
“He was not a boss-eyed sailor. Or a rapist. He was a legend.”
And indeed he was. It was Arlette and Godfrey who kept me turning the pages, desperate to see whether they would get their happy ever after. Their chemistry sizzles right off the pages and Arlette, like any young girl hopelessly in love, thinks her love is strong enough to survive the prejudice of the time, to change the world around her. But is it? And how does Little Miss Pickle fit into the story? Who is she to Arlette that she would leave her entire estate to her, when nobody in her family even knows of her existence? Well folks that would be telling.
This is a wonderful, gripping novel which gets better and better with the more pages your turn. So good that I found myself carrying it with me everywhere, just in case I had a spare few seconds to read the next line. This is not just a book about Betty on a journey to find out who Clara is; it is Betty and Arlette on a journey to find out who they are and where they fit in the world. It is a novel which has you questioning how well you really know the people around you, how well do you really know your grandparents and who they were before you?
I was hooked right from the start of this beautiful, poignant and at times, humorous novel and ever since turning the last page, whilst wiping the tear from my eye, I have been berating myself for not giving Lisa Jewell a chance much earlier!
Southern Syncopated Orchestra, Jazz Legends: http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2006/10/09/orchestra_feature.shtml