Today, I have the honor of reviewing Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell. This is a spectacular book that's part historical fiction, and part coming-of-age novel for two very unique girls.
Paperback, 448 pages
Expected publication: October 15th 2013 by Atria Books
Format read: Physical ARC, courtesy of publisher
Synopsis (via Goodreads):
In 1920s bohemian London, Arlette De La Mare is starting her new life in a time of postwar change. Beautiful and charismatic, she is soon drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. But two years after her arrival in London, tragedy strikes and she flees back to her childhood home and remains there for the rest of her life.
As Betty navigates the ups and downs of city life and begins working as a nanny for a rock star tabloid magnet, her search for Clara leads her to a man—a stranger to Betty, but someone who meant the world to her grandmother. Will the secrets of Arlette’s past help Betty find her own way to happiness in the present?
A rich detective story and a captivating look at London then and now, Before I Met You is an unforgettable novel about two very different women, separated by seventy years, but united by big hearts and even bigger dreams.
My love has only grown over the years, after studying abroad in London, and actually living in England for several years.
So when I spotted Lisa Jewell's Before I Met You on Edelweiss, I knew that this was something I wanted to read. It had all of the hallmarks of a great British novel: a historical setting, two diverse female characters, and a London setting.
Luckily for me, Atria kindly sent me an ARC. After devouring the novel in a day, I've come to the conclusion that Before I Met You is a beautifully painful book, detailing the coming-of-age journeys of two very different women, who learn through trial and error, just who they're meant to be.
Things that worked:
Betty and Arlette are two very different women, separate by the decades. However, their journey is universal: they are both young, gifted women who are struggling to find their place in the world.
After a lifetime of living on an isolated island, Jewell leads Betty to glittering London, to help fulfill her grandmother's final wish. She's eager, determined and hopeful as she starts her journey, but she's also scared and determined to not fail.
Jewell beautifully paints the uncertainty of a girl who's actually very good at certain things, but just hasn't had the opportunity to shine, and is now terrified that she's going to be relegated back to her old life.
At the same time, we also see Arlette's teenaged life unfold decades earlier, eventually leading us to just why her final wish has come to be in the first place.
Arlette is a little more confident than Betty, but also treads into territory that is unprecedented, and doesn't know how to respond - especially as that unprecedented territory develops.
I'll be honest: I felt almost uncomfortable at times when reading the development of these two girls, because Jewell had dug so deep into the psyches and universal natures of both women, I almost felt like I was reading parts of myself that I've always wanted to remain hidden, and Jewell was shining light onto them for the first time.
As for the secondary characters - they're rich, delightful, heartbreaking and a joy to read. Jewell has populated her cast with characters who have the type of personalities that almost all readers will recognize in the people in their own lives, and will enrich the reading experience.
* The exploration of youth
Jewell approaches the concept of youth differently through the eyes of both women, but still interlinks them together.
Arlette is young and vivacious as she takes on London, and in her mind, the world is something that will be conquered, even as she experiences set backs. However, she eventually becomes tired of everything she has experienced, and retires to life on the island.
Betty is the exact opposite. She's already tired of her life, by the time she starts out in London. However, her experiences and her challenges eventually make her become more excited, and more willing to pursue her future.
I think that readers, particularly women around Arlette and Betty's age, will see a little bit of themselves in both women, and will absolutely relate to them.
* The painful moments, or the obstacles of life
Without giving any spoilers away, both Betty and Arlette experience the type of challenges and obstacles that I feel like I don't often seen in contemporary fiction anymore.
Arlette in particular, experiences a set of painful circumstances that I think would have had any normal person absolutely marveling at her ability to keep calm and carry one.
I was saddened and extremely upset by what these two women had to go through while reading, but in a way, I was almost grateful to Jewell for putting her characters through these trials.
She not only humanizes them, but she also reminds the reader that yes, life can be ridiculously tough at times. However, it's what you do with these circumstances that will give you strength to get through it.
* The ending
The ending is perfect. That's all I'm going to say, because I insist that all of you read this book immediately.
Things that didn't work:
Yes, the journeys of the characters aren't perfect or ideal, by any means. However, the realism of what both women go through is, in my honest opinion, what makes this book great.
I highly recommend this book for fans of historical fiction, but also fans featuring beautifully layered, strong coming-of-age stories.
I received an ARC of Before I Met You from Atria Books/Simon and Schuster, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!