It’s probably not fair to an author to start a book in the week leading up to Christmas, especially when you’re in the middle of moving house. That may explain why Lisa Jewell’s novel, Before I Met You, took me a few days to get into. Once I had a stretch of a few good reading hours, however, I became absorbed.
Before I Met You begins with the story of Betty who, as a child, goes with her mother and step-father to the Channel Island of Guernsey to live with her ageing step-grandmother, Arlette. Arlette lives as a near recluse, occupying a suite of rooms in a crumbling old house perched on a cliff facing the sea. Although she appears to dislike almost everyone, she takes a shine to Betty. She introduces her step-granddaughter to “glamour” and fashion, even though, by all accounts, she has never left Guernsey.
Reaching adulthood in the 1990s, Betty has grown fond of Arlette, even though the old woman is increasingly frail and suffers from dementia. After taking it upon herself to stay on the island to look after Arlette until her death, Betty is rewarded with a small legacy and a mystery: she must look for a girl by the name of “Miss Clara Pickle”, to whom Arlette has left part of her fortune. If Clara cannot be found within a year, the inheritance will be Betty’s. Her last known address is in London’s infamous red light district, Soho.
Eager for adventure and wanting to solve the mystery of the bequest, Betty travels to London and settles in Soho, using almost all of her legacy to rent a tiny studio. Before she can look into the mystery, she must first find a job, and this proves difficult. Eventually, she progresses from flipping burgers at Wendy’s to being the nanny for an estranged celebrity couple. In her spare time, she befriends a DJ who helps her follow clues Arlette has left as to Clara Pickle’s identity. Along the way, Betty discovers that her grandmother, far from being a recluse – albeit with a taste for finery and red satin shoes – once led a totally different life, one of excitement, fashion and glamour.
Running parallel to Betty’s story is the story of Arlette’s youth which is dramatised in interleaving flashbacks. Having come of age in the years following World War One, Arlette, a great beauty, travels from Guernsey to London to live with the family of an old friend of her mother. There, at the beginning of the jazz age of the 1920s, she meets Gideon Worsley, a Bohemian artist from a well-to-do family who insists on painting her portrait. Gideon introduces her to one of the great jazz musicians of the age, a black clarinet player from the Caribbean, whose stage name is “Sandy Beach”. Alongside Gideon and “Sandy”, Arlette – a shop girl, by day – frequents the fashionable night clubs of the era, mingling with the famous people who make up the fashionable pre-Bloomsbury set.
As the novel progresses, the two narrative threads converge and the mystery surrounding Arlette’s will is explained. In a dual climax, Betty and Arlette, their lives separated by a gap of seventy-five years, individually face difficult choices which will set the course for their futures.
Before I met You gives us a glimpse of post-World War One London when women were experiencing new freedoms, both in terms of economic opportunity and of social mobility; it also conveys the constraints facing women of that time. The lasting impression of the story for me, however, is one of sadness, with the realisation of how quickly and easily the lives of one generation may be forgotten by subsequent generations. It makes me wish my father’s mother, a contemporary of Arlette, had recorded her life story. It would fill in so many gaps.
Author: Lisa Jewell
Title: Before I Met You
Publisher: Century, Random House Group
I borrowed a copy from the library.