Having seen thisreviewed all over the blogosphere, I had to try it out for myself. It suffered a little for being the story of two generations, set in London in the 1960s and 1990s/2000s – just like The Last Letter From Your Lover, which I read immediately before it.
I found some parts of this really quite uncomfortable, particularly the evident trauma of birth and new motherhood on Elina and the obvious doom lurking around Lexie and Innes’ relationship. However, if anything that made this a better read – challenging the reader and not allowing the book to become a cotton candy-coloured cloud like Last Letter.
The characters were exquisitely formed – each very different and all strong and vibrant. I loved Lexie. Her fiery adherence to her principles in the face of the prospect of an “easier life” (particularly her refusal to apologise to her university – which I can only assume from the context is supposed to be Oxford/Cambridge – for using a door meant for men when exiting an exam hall and her seaworthy expletives while giving birth, despite the nurses’ admonishing). Innes and Ted are both strong male characters (for once! Everything I read seems to be filled with either philandering fools or foppish, useless Mummy’s boys) whose love for their partners is fierce and unyielding. Margot, too, is a solid creation, difficult and emotional.
My favourite character was definitely Elina, however. I was delighted to see an author tackle the bilingual experience – both the compulsion of the bilingual to speak their non-English language in certain situations, and the perception of this by their partner. And O’Farrell blesses Elina with inherent coolness (“Often, after one of those walking-about nights, she’d had that look the next day; a woman preoccupied, a woman with a satisfying secret”) which serves as a counterpoint to the exhaustion and apathy of motherhood.
For the first four-fifths of the book, this is simply two interwoven stories, when suddenly a mystery is flung into the plot, suddenly livening up the ending (by which point there’s not much space for character development any more) – which really impressed me.
I will definitely be recommending this, although I will have to advise readers to stick with it and get used to the back-and-forth chapters, which I found quite off-putting at first. Very much worth the effort.