Book Review | The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

There’s something just so delightful about Beth O’Leary. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but you know that it will be equal doses of funny and heartfelt; intensely readable with genuine characters and a solid storyline.

The Road Trip doesn’t disappoint. Addie and her sister Deb are on a road trip up to Scotland for their friend Cherry’s wedding. As luck would have it, not long into their journey someone rams into the back of their mini. That someone happens to be Addie’s ex, Dylan, and his insufferable friend, Marcus. Dylan and Marcus’s car is wrecked, and in a moment of madness, Addie and Deb take pity on them. They all bundle into their mini – along with Rodney, who’s a fellow wedding attendee and stranger to them all.

In the narrative that ensues, we witness the comical scenes of five grown adults packed into a mini with a not inconsiderable amount of tension, not enough aircon, and Rodney who keeps whipping out a tub of flapjacks, as if that will solve everything. Much amusement ensues with the arrival of Kevin the truck driver, and an unfortunate pit stop that ends in a missing persons search.

‘I have a feeling that if this journey had been any longer, it would have become progressively more Lord of the Flies, and Marcus probably would have eaten somebody.’

Alongside the present-day journey to Scotland, we get alternating chapters in both Addie and Dylan’s point of view, charting the early beginnings – and eventual ending – of their relationship. This is where you need to be prepared for what is a messy, sad, complicated set of circumstances – where issues of class, privilege, education, parental pressure, alcoholism, sexual assault, etc. come to light. I can see why readers wanting a pure light and fluffy romance might find the inclusion of ‘grittier’ themes to be a disappointment, but I felt that O’Leary deftly explored these issues while also providing the reader with light relief. In another author’s hands it might have felt at best contrived and at worst totally distasteful and mismanaged, but here it worked perfectly in tandem.

‘I think he’s going to say it, and once he has, that’s it, like he’s putting a time stamp on our lives. Creating a before and after. I feel it coming like I’m speeding toward something, and for one panicked moment I think I ought to slam on the brakes.’

I wish that the author had cut Marcus less slack – he was truly insufferable and I didn’t entirely buy into his redemption arc – and there could have been more done to establish an emotional chemistry between Addie and Dylan in their early scenes to build a firmer foundation for a swept-off-your-feet romance. But these are small comments in a book that kept me up reading. This isn’t normally my genre of choice – but as long as it’s got Beth O’Leary’s name on it, I’ll be adding it to the TBR.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Switch by Beth O'Leary book review

Book Review | The Switch by Beth O’Leary

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.

***.5

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Switch was published in the US on August 18th.

Book Review | The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Tiffy needs a place to live. She’s in London, and her meagre Assistant Editor salary isn’t going to get her very far. She also needs to get out of her toxic ex-boyfriend’s flat, finally accepting that things are over between them. And that’s when she comes across this unconventional arrangement.

Leon is a palliative care nurse and works nights. He needs the extra cash – his brother is in prison, a wrongful conviction for armed robbery, and Leon is desperately funding a lawyer to start an appeal. So he places an ad for someone to share his apartment between the hours of 6pm and 9am every day. They’ll share the bed, kitchen, utensils, TV. Except they’ll never meet.

“I knew when I signed up for this that we wouldn’t be in the flat at the same time – that was why it was such a good idea. But I didn’t realise that we would literally never meet. Like, ever, at all, for four whole months.”

In our modern-day world, where almost all indirect communication is digital, there is something charming and whimsical about writing. What starts as a note from Tiffy reminding Leon to keep the toilet seat down evolves into a longstanding form of communication between the two, each of them slowly getting to know the other through the months in which they share a home and a bed but never cross paths.

“I rest my forehead against the fridge door for a moment, then run my fingers across the layers of paper scraps and post-its. There’s no much here. Jokes, secrets, stories, the slow unfolding of two people whose lives have been changing in parallel – or, I don’t know, in sync. Different times, same place.”

There’s more than meets the eye with this hugely engaging, funny and touching piece of contemporary fiction. Tiffy is a quirky character without being a caricature, and the way that O’Leary alternates the perspectives between the two protagonists through a distinct writing style for each helps to define their voices and builds up their personalities. Honourable mentions should also go to Tiffy’s best friends, counsellor Mo and no-nonsense lawyer Gerty, faithful companions who support Tiffy through good and bad.

There are also depths to this novel that you might not be expecting: the lasting ramifications of trauma; the failures of the justice system; emotional abuse and manipulation. O’Leary counters these topics in a sensitive way that is still in keeping with the tone of the novel. She takes an innovative idea, shaking up the traditional epistolary form and creates a quirky novel you can devour in a couple of sittings.

“Life is often simple, but you don’t notice how simple it was until it gets incredibly complicated, like how you never feel grateful for being well until you’re ill, or how you never appreciate your tights drawer until you rip a pair and have no spares.”