Book Review: Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell
When 11-year-old Elizabeth moves to the island of Guernsey with her mother and stepfather, she has no idea that she’s about to meet a woman who will change her life. Arlette, Elizabeth’s stepfather’s mother, is the grande dame of the crumbling old mansion, always immaculately dressed, with an air of sophistication and glamour that seems out of keeping with a woman who’s spent her entire life isolated on an island. She takes an immediate shine to Elizabeth, renames her Betty (a much snazzier name, to be sure), and takes her into her heart as a full-fledged granddaughter.
Years later, Betty is a young woman who takes care of the ailing Arlette in her final days, deferring the possibility of university somewhere more glamorous in order to live with Arlette and be by her side 24/7. And when Arlette passes, she leaves a strange bequest. To be sure, Betty is mentioned favorably in Arlette’s will and receives a nice amount of money and worldly goods — but a mystery woman is also mentioned, someone that no one in the family has ever heard of. The last known address for this person is in London, and Betty sees this as an opportunity to set out on an adventure while also honoring Arlette’s wishes. Finally free and somewhat independent at age 23, Betty heads to London, sets herself up in a cramped Soho studio, and dives into life in the big city.
Before I Met You employes the device of a split narrative, so that we follow Betty in 1995 and Arlette in 1920, both young women entering London’s excitement on their own, looking for purpose, for connection, and for fun.
In Arlette’s timeline, we see the world of the jazz age, as Arlette is taken up by the fun-loving class of painters and musicians, the “Bright Young People” of the day, and is swept away on a current of passion, excitement, and danger. Betty’s story, by comparison, is somewhat tamer. She’s a fish out of water, trying to play detective to track down Arlette’s mysterious heir, but at the same time trying to support herself and feel a part of life in the big city. In bits and pieces, we see both young women start to establish themselves and find their own way, and their stories are vaguely parallel in some ways.
Ultimately, of course, we know to expect a tragedy of some sort in Arlette’s story. Why else would she end up living her life back on Guernsey, with her entire London adventure a complete unknown to those who knew and loved her? Tragic and awful events do occur, and it’s not until the end of the book that we fully understand why Arlette’s life turned out as it did.
Meanwhile, Betty works at unpleasant jobs, meets a rock star (for real), parties quite a bit, has a creepy downstairs neighbor, and attracts the attention of a dreamy guy who sells record albums in the market outside her building. As she explores the clues to Arlette’s past, she gains confidence and starts to figure out what she really wants, and who she wants to be with.
Given the drama of Arlette’s story, it’s hard to stay interested in the Betty interludes, which take up a greater portion of the narrative. As a main character, she didn’t strike me as particularly deep, and she seems to make a string of not very well thought out decisions. The tonal shifts are a bit jarring: In Arlette’s story, we’re immersed in the glamour of the 1920s, and the narrative takes on a dramatic and somewhat elegant tone. But in the Betty sections, there are moments of absolute crassness that feel like too abrupt a shift from the style in the other timeline, so that it was often hard to make the shift between stories and continue to feel involved in both timelines.
Overall, I enjoyed Before I Met You quite a bit. Once the London storylines get underway, it’s easy to get swept up in the swift storytelling, and I often had to force myself to put the book down rather than reading straight through. As I’ve said, I found Arlette’s story much more compelling than Betty’s, which is problematic in a split-narrative story. Ideally, both halves of the story should carry equal weight, so that the reader feels excited to pick up the threads of the plot each time the focus shifts. Instead, I found Betty’s challenges and dilemmas rather trivial when compared to Arlette’s pieces of the story, so that it was always a bit of a let-down to return to the 1990s-era sections.
That said, I was very interested in the central mystery of the book, and found a few twists in the resolution that I really hadn’t foreseen or even guessed at. Arlette is wonderful character, both strong and tragic, and I did love seeing the tight bond between Arlette as an old woman and Betty as a displaced young girl. Their relationship and its impact on Betty is moving and lovely, and I think that even when I found myself shaking my head at Betty’s choices in London, I was able to continue feeling warmly toward her in large part due to the respect I had for her because of her dedication to Arlette.
If you enjoy dual timeline stories and reading about young women — in any era — finding their way in the world, then I’d suggest checking out Before I Met You.
Title: Before I Met You
Author: Lisa Jewell
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult Fiction (contemporary/historical)
Source: Review copy courtesy of Atria via NetGalley