Book Review: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Switch
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Eileen is sick of being 79.
Leena’s tired of life in her twenties.
Maybe it’s time they swapped places…

When overachiever Leena Cotton is ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, she escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Eileen is newly single and about to turn eighty. She’d like a second chance at love, but her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen.

Once Leena learns of Eileen’s romantic predicament, she proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love. Meanwhile Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire. But with gossiping neighbours and difficult family dynamics to navigate up north, and trendy London flatmates and online dating to contend with in the city, stepping into one another’s shoes proves more difficult than either of them expected.

Leena learns that a long-distance relationship isn’t as romantic as she hoped it would be, and then there is the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – school teacher, who keeps showing up to outdo her efforts to impress the local villagers. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, but is her perfect match nearer home than she first thought?

Switching lives is a fiction trope that’s always fun and entertaining, and that’s true for the new novel by Beth O’Leary.

In The Switch, a grandmother and granddaughter decide to switch lives for two months, each being stuck in a frustrating rut. For Eileen, she’s 79 years old, her lackluster husband has just left her for another woman, and she already knows all the single men her age in her little village. She’s ready to get back out and start dating, but the pickings are slim.

Meanwhile, Leena is afraid that she’s torpedoed her career after suffering a major panic attack in the middle of a client pitch. Her boss (kindly, I thought) insists that Leena take a 2-month paid holiday to rest and recenter herself.

Both Leena and Eileen are dealing with loss and grief, in addition to their career/dating woes. Leena’s younger sister Carla died a year earlier after a battle with cancer. Leena has been quietly falling apart ever since, and Eileen has thrown herself into looking after her daughter Marion, who is fragile and shaky. On top of all this, Leena isn’t speaking to Marion, since she blames her for allowing Carla to stop treatment rather than pursuing an experimental option in America.

Once Leena is forced to take time off, she comes up with the idea of switching places with her grandmother. While there are no eligible men for Eileen where she lives, there are plenty in London, and Leena realizes that the peace of the village might provide her with a fresh start.

Naturally, they’re both fish out of water. Eileen moves in with Leena’s twenty-something flatmates and immediately begins making waves, insisting on getting to know the neighbors, rather than observing the time-honored city dweller tradition of ignoring everyone around you. Eileen does not take no for an answer, and soon has the entire building socializing and coming together for a good cause. Not only that, but her online dating profile leads her to a few good prospects, including a suave, attractive actor who’s clearly just looking for a no-strings lover — something Eileen is all too eager to give a try.

For Leena, small-town life is not as quiet as she’d anticipated. She’s expected to fill Eileen’s role on town committees, to socialize with Eileen’s friends, and to pitch in whenever needed. The town gossip immediate includes Leena and her misadventures, but she’s determined to break through some of the walls that the town’s grumpier residents put up.

Of course, each woman ends up finding love — and I can’t really say it’s where you’d least expect it, because I could see the love stories coming from a mile away. Leena starts off with a serious boyfriend, but it’s easy for the reader to see the couple’s issues, even if Leena doesn’t, and naturally the right guy is right under her nose, once she opens her eyes.

The Switch is a warm book, definitely lightened up by Eileen’s quirkiness and feistiness. I enjoyed Leena’s interactions in the village too. The emotional beats related to Carla’s death and the aftermath of her loss are often powerful, although the plot thread showing Leena and her mother finding their way back together could have benefited from more showing and less telling.

Overall, this is a sweet, lovable book. It’s perky and charming, and even though it’s mostly predictable, I still found it a hug-worthy, engaging read — just the right blend of lightness and real-life emotion to make it a good summer escape.

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 28,2019
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

In Ask Again, Yes, we follow the trajectories of two families over the years, seeing how their connections follow them and affect their entire lives.

Kate and Peter, born within months of each other, grow up as next door neighbors and best friends. Their fathers served on the police force together, and the families’ background are entwined in shared history and parallel origins. For Kate and Peter, they have no memory of life without the other. But a tragic, violent incident when they’re fourteen shatters both families’ lives, and cuts short the romantic relationship just starting to bloom between Kate and Peter.

Ask Again, Yes traces the roots of the family dynamics at play, and then follows Kate and Peter as their lives diverge and then come back together.

There’s a lot to unpack here — themes of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, infidelity, parenthood and abandonment, the ups and downs of a long marriage — and yet, the story for the most part left me cold.

This story of family and suburban drama covers a lot of years, but feels diffuse somehow. The POV shifts between characters, so we view events through Kate and Peter’s eyes, but also through the experiences of their parents and others. Perhaps as a result, we often don’t stick with one character long enough to see an event through, and there seem to be some odd choices in terms of which events we experience in detail and which only get referred to in passing or in summary.

There are certainly some tragic occurrences, and places where tragedy could possibly have been avoided if appropriate mental health resources had either been available or sought out. I never really bought into the central love story between Kate and Peter, and the troubles they experience later in their marriage felt sort of shoe-horned in for me.

I read Ask Again, Yes as a book group read, and I’m thinking that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. That said, the relationships are complex and thought-provoking — it’s simply not my preferred subject matter, and the writing didn’t engage or move me.

Still, I look forward to the book group discussion later this week. Maybe I’ll find more to appreciate once I hear what my book friends have to say about it!

Book Review: Of Literature & Lattes by Katherine Reay

Title: Of Literature & Lattes
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 12, 2020
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Katherine Reay returns to the cozy and delightful town of Winsome where two people discover the grace of letting go and the joy found in unexpected change.

After fleeing her hometown three years earlier, Alyssa Harrison never planned to return. Then the Silicon Valley start-up she worked for collapsed and turned her world upside down. She is broke, under FBI investigation, and without a place to go. Having exhausted every option, she comes home to Winsome, Illinois, to regroup then move on as quickly as possible. Yet, as friends and family welcome her back, Alyssa begins to see a place for herself in this small Midwestern community.

Jeremy Mitchell moved from Seattle to Winsome to be near his daughter and to open the coffee shop he’s been dreaming of for years. Problem is, the business is bleeding money—and he’s not quite sure why. When he meets Alyssa, he senses an immediate connection, but what he needs most is someone to help him save his floundering business. After asking for her help, he wonders if something might grow between them—but forces beyond their control soon complicate their already complex lives, and the future they both hoped for is not at all what they anticipated.

With the help of Winsome’s small-town charm and quirky residents, Alyssa and Jeremy discover the beauty and romance of second chances.

Of Literature & Lattes is Katherine Reay’s follow-up to The Printed Letter Bookshop, which I finally read and reviewed just last week. In this new novel, we return to the town of Winsome, Illinois — home of an amazing bookstore, lots of cute shops, and people who get what community is all about.

The story follows two main characters: Alyssa, returning with dread to her hometown after a disastrous stint in Silicon Valley, and Jeremy, a grown-up with a sad childhood behind him, looking to spend more time with his daughter and investing everything in a new coffee shop.

For Alyssa, nothing has worked out as intended, and she seems like the walking embodiment of someone having baggage. After her parents’ divorce three years earlier, she sided with her father, cut her mother out of her life, and moved as far away as she could get. Alyssa’s magic with numbers and coding landed her a great job at a medical start-up — but her world crashes down sudddenly when it turns out that the company was nothing but a fraud, and what’s worse, provided false information to people about future diagnoses of awful illnesses.

Wracked by guilt and totally broke, Alyssa has no choice but to head home — where nothing is as expected. Alyssa’s mother is Janet, one of the main characters in The Printed Letter Bookshop, and Janet has changed dramatically. Alyssa expects to be able to hide out at her father’s apartment, but instead, he forces her to face her mother. As Janet and Alyssa spend time together, they form new understandings and realize that they have a lot of work to do to overcome the harmful patterns of their past, if they ever hope to have a relationship in the future.

Meanwhile, life for Jeremy is complicated too. His 7-year-old daughter Becca lives nearby, and he’s relocated from Seattle to be with her. Jeremy invested all his savings into buying the local coffee shop from its retiring owner, dreaming of turning it into a modern, successful business. The problem is, the locals don’t share his vision — and as he transforms the cozy, shabby coffee shop into something sleek and streamlined, the daily traffic plummets.

Jeremy is a good guy and his heart is in the right place, but he has to learn to step back and understand what community is all about if his business is going to survive — and if he’s serious about creating a new home for himself and for Becca.

There’s a lot to love about Of Literature & Lattes. First of all, the town of Winsome is just as charming as in the previous book. It’s an idealized version of small-town homey-ness, and wouldn’t we all love to find a place like that to belong?

The people here seem to really care about one another, and while yes, they are all up in each other’s business a little more than I’d personally care for, this connection comes out in all sorts of ways that are heart-warming and important.

Alyssa and Janet spend a lot of this book at odds, and it’s messy and a little terrible, but also feels real. Their dynamic goes back years, and has as much to do with Janet’s feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction as with their actual relationship. It’s not easy for them to sort out all the ways in which they’ve hurt and misunderstood one another, but over the course of their months together, they make major strides — and find that they both truly want to make things better.

For Jeremy, the relationship with his ex Krista is difficult, and his business isn’t going as he’d hoped. He starts off very focused on his own vision — an outsider who thinks he knows what the town needs. It’s only when he allows himself to admit that he needs to learn that he starts to connect with the community in a real way, realizing that a coffee shop that’s perfect but lacks heart just isn’t going to cut it.

Once again, I really enjoyed the author’s way of weaving personal stories into a bigger picture of a community. I enjoyed seeing the familiar characters from the previous story, as well as meeting Alyssa and Jeremy and seeing how they fit into the greater whole.

While Of Literature & Lattes could work as a stand-alone, I’d recommend reading The Printed Letter Bookshop first. I’m glad I did! OL&L is touching and lovely, but it’s so much richer when set into the context of the larger story, and I think without the previous book, many of the connections would have gone right by me without leaving an impression.

Another heart-warming story from author Katherine Reay — and yes, plenty of book talk too!