I stumbled across this book through a series of happy coincidences and boy, am I glad I did. Up-lit is one of my favourite genres to read because a happy ending of some kind is guaranteed, but it's always tempered with a hearty dose of reality, which takes it away from the saccharine sweetness of other genres. In Phyllida Shrimpton, I've found another author to add to my list of 'look out for their next book.'
I knew within a couple of pages that the book was going to be a good one and that the author's writing style was one I was going to enjoy. The line that caught my attention was this one:
'A single pillow, where he was to lay his head that night, whispered to him of other schoolboys' nightmares still caught inside its cotton slip.'
For me, it conjured up the most beautiful and heart-rending image that perfectly encapsulated the sense of loss and isolation that the character felt on his first night at boarding school. I seem to have read a lot of books recently that involve young children being sent to boarding school. Many of them have captured that same sense of feeling bereft, but none of the others managed to capture it in a single sentence and I think this is a testament to the quality of this author's writing.
The book opens in 1929 at a moment of change in Algernon's life (when he goes to boarding school) and then shifts to 2019 and another moment of great change in his life, when his estranged daughter (Helene) returns home with her own teenage daughter (Anna) in tow. What I found interesting about this - and what makes it stand out from other books which deal with the issue of the prejudices surrounding unmarried pregnancies - is that Helene was not a teenager when she fell pregnant. It's a small point, but for me as both a reader and a writer, it was another reason to laud the book. It is those subtle differences that make a book stand out because they make it just that little bit different to others which deal with similar themes.
Helene and Anna slowly rebuild their lives but as Anna’s relationship with Algernon develops, her one with her mother begins to deteriorate and she loses all sense of herself. However, with the help of her family and her friend Jake, Anna rediscovers herself and helps Algernon do the same. This section of the book was particularly interesting for me, as the parent of a teenager and a six year old because Anna slowly begins to realise that her mother is not perfect and my own experiences of the different relationships I have with my own children is testament to the authenticity of the difficulties of helping children to make that transition between thinking their parents have all the answers, to realising that sometimes they are floundering just as much as their children are. However, like Anna, my eldest came out of the other side of that transition with a much better understanding of his parents and a far stronger, healthier relationship with them.
Love is the strongest theme in this story and it underpins everything that happens in the book. What makes the book what it is, is that that love is familial and based in friendship, not romance. It explores the fragility of even the most confident and outgoing of personalities and the complexity of parent-child relationships. Through Anna's story, Phyllida Shrimpton perfectly captures the terrors of starting a new school beyond the usual admission years and I could see my own son’s experiences reflected in Anna’s when she uses exterior confidence to mask the crippling self-doubt inside. Ultimately, however, love sees her through these trials and the family dynamic is restored to what it always had the potential to be.
I'm grateful to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book and it's definitely one I'll be recommending to everyone.