Leena is in her late twenties and working a high-powered job in London. Eileen, her grandmother, is in her late seventies and stuck in a rut after her loveless marriage fell apart. When Leena takes a ‘forced sabbatical,’ they come up with the hairbrained idea to swap lives. Eileen will go and live in Leena’s Shoreditch flat, Leena will move to Eileen’s sleepy Yorkshire village.
But there’s also grief at the heart of the story – the loss of Leena’s younger sister Carla to cancer, a few years before we meet the characters. This devastating loss has driven a wedge between Leena and her mum, and subsequently Leena has thrown herself full throttle into her work. So this ‘switch’ is a chance for both characters to experience time away from their own lives, to gain fresh perspective and clarity.
There’s something about Beth O’Leary’s writing that is so charming without being saccharine, comforting without being sentimental. Eileen is an absolute riot, seventy-nine years ‘young’ who doesn’t bat an eyelid at dipping her toe in online dating and forming a ‘no strings attached’ relationship during her time in the big city. It was refreshing to see an older character portrayed in this way without it being a caricature or over-the-top.
‘Lying tangled in each other’s arms becomes slightly less practical when you’ve both got bad backs.’
Leena finds it a little harder to be welcomed into the Hamleigh village community, promptly losing her neighbour’s dog, causing upset at the committee meeting when she suggests a change to the May Day celebration theme, and being an all-round terrible baker. But she too comes to forge a deeper connection with the community, and an understanding of their values and experiences.
‘These people. There’s such a fierceness to them, such a lovingness. When I got here, I thought their lives were small and silly, but I was wrong. They’re some of the biggest people I know.’
Whereas The Flatshare felt like an entirely new and fresh concept, The Switch felt a little more derivative (shout out to one of my favourite Christmas films, The Holiday!) Because there were quite a few plates spinning in the air, it also felt contrived at times, with easy resolution of major conflicts (e.g. Leena’s relationship with her mother) and convenient solutions to thorny problems. Whilst the central premise is not romance, the romantic angles in the plot did feel a little hurried and underdeveloped, but nevertheless added a heartwarming note.
It’s perfect escapism for darker days and a wholesome, if uneven, novel to sink into.
With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Switch was published in the US on August 18th.