I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber (check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and the author for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
Sometimes it seems as if all the books and movies on offer are centred on young protagonists, and I’m not only talking about Young Adult books. However, recently there has been a move towards including older protagonists and subjects. I enjoyed the two Dutch books about Hendrik Groen, a man in his eighties living in a nursing home, and have watched a few movies, usually choral, about older protagonists (like The Exotic Marigold Hotel). The setting of this novel, in a residential home, and the promise of a comedy made it sound like the perfect choice for me.
The first-person narrator of the story is Phoebe, a chef who had a very successful career in a bistro before disaster struck. She loves her job at the residential home (The Jane Austen Home for Ladies, and, as we discover, the name is meaningful in several ways), but has always felt frustrated because her parents (and her mother, in particular) do not seem to value her job and are dismissive of her career. To make matters worse, her mother (a larger-than-life character) dies suddenly at the beginning of the book, but her internalised voice keeps gnawing on her confidence. Her best friend, June, is the manager of the home, and she fancies Nick, who is the official physiotherapist but also takes on any odd jobs going on (art therapy, gardening, handyman…). I know some readers don’t like first-person narratives, although Phoebe is unassuming, witty and an excellent friend. (On the minus side, her lack of self-confidence can make her sound paranoid and bitchy, and she keeps mulling over things, unable to decide what to do, trying hard to feel comfortable in her own skin and accept the credit for her achievements). We learn some surprising things about her family life together and by the end of the book, although I don’t have much in common with her character, I felt connected to her and appreciated her role as a narrator. Her friendship with June is convincing and their relationship is one of the strongest points of the book.
I also loved the residents of the home, and in many ways (not only due to my age, I hope), I felt closer to them than to the protagonist. We get to know some of them more than others (Maggie is fabulous and I loved Dot, Laney, Sophie, and yes, even Terence). They all feel real, with their foibles and their endearing traits, and make the book memorable. We follow the intrigues that have to do with the home and the changes that take place there (from a women’s only place to a mixed one) and learn about its inhabitants, their secrets, and their past lives. We are both observers and participants in much of the action, and we feel invested in their fates. We learn the importance of accepting people for who they are and moving beyond appearances and prejudices.
There are several romances with happy, or at least hopeful, endings (for the young and the older generations), broken hearts and disappointments, secrets and lies, and there is also the connection (pointed out through references to the book club and their discussions) to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I would not call the novel a variation on Pride and Prejudice but if we think of Austen’s text as we read it we can discover nuances that might be easily missed otherwise.
Although there are many amusing lines in the novel (and some pretty touching ones as well. As we know, humour can be an excellent defence mechanism against hurt), I thought I’d share a few (remember that I got an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final version of the novel):
We’ve never let something as trifling as the spectre of death stand in the way of a good snipe.
My mother didn’t get ulcers, she gave them.
He’s a perv-whisperer.
She wouldn’t like my ponytail, though. I did try taking it down, but having it up in a hair tie the entire weekend meant my hair had a ridge along the back that gave it a very White Cliffs of Dover effect.
I’m surprised he doesn’t need an oxygen tank with all the social climbing he’s been doing.
The writing flows well and fits in perfectly with the voice of the narrator, who can spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about her beau but is also attuned to the feelings of the residents and her friend. There are plenty of amusing events taking place throughout the novel that keep the action moving, but the characters are much stronger than the plot and by the end of the book (that I enjoyed) they have all become good friends (or most of them have).
The author defines her books as light reads, as beach novels, and says her readers describe them as “feel-good.” All that is true, although behind all the funny goings-on the book illustrates the importance of keeping expectations and prejudices under control, and it reminds parents that they should encourage their children to find fulfilment in their own terms rather than expect them to make their parent’s dreams come true. If you are looking for a light read, full of memorable characters, plenty of humour, and a big deal of heart, I’d recommend this novel. And, if it existed in real life, I wouldn’t mind working at the home (and in time even living there) either.