One of my students recommended this author, knowing that I am allergic to plain romance – and I absolutely loved The Girl You Left Behind – see my review here. So when I saw this offering on the library shelves, it was a no-brainer that I’d add it to the teetering piles of books by the bed.
One single mum with two jobs and two children, Jess Thomas does her best day after day. But it’s hard on your own. And sometimes you take risks you shouldn’t. Because you have to… One chaotic family – Jess’s gifted, quirky daughter Tanzie is brilliant with numbers, but without a helping hand she’ll never get the chance to shine. And Nicky, Jess’s teenage stepson, can’t fight the bullies alone. Sometimes Jess feels like they’re sinking… Into their lives comes Ed Nicholls, a man whose life is in chaos, and who is running from a deeply uncertain future. But he has time on his hands. He knows what it’s like to be lonely. And he wants to help…
That’s the blurb, more or less – and yes – I know it reads like a bit of romantic fluff. But it really isn’t. Jess cleans other people’s houses and lives on a rough estate, so her children go to the local sink school. And the first chunk of this book is a grim insight into modern Britain where, no matter how determined and hard-working you are – if you happen to live in the wrong place, your children are doomed to a sub-standard education. Heartbreaking enough, anyway. But if they are particularly gifted, or stand out in any way, it’s worse – given that our State education system isn’t geared up to assist clever children fulfil their potential. I particularly felt that that Moyes captured the feelings of sheer bewilderment when a parent is confronted with a brilliant child – especially when said brilliant child has a very bad wobble.
Ed has his own problems and initially it is a testament to Moyes’ writing talent that I didn’t dismiss him as a maladjusted geek who deserved everything he got. Offering to pay off a gold-digging girlfriend isn’t particularly admirable – neither is making constant excuses not to see his terminally ill father. However Moyes managed to make me care about him and his problems sufficiently that I really didn’t want to see him receive a hefty prison sentence.
Never work with children or animals is the advice given to actors – but I also happen to think both of these additions to a book should come with a health warning, as it is easy to write both badly. Does Moyes manage to avoid being sentimental over the soppy, over-sized dog and the children? Yep. You wouldn’t wish that dog on anyone with a working sense of smell – and travelling for several days in car with him is a feat of endurance. No wonder Tanzie suffers so badly from travel sickness…
I’m conscious my description of the book manages to give the impression that it is some worthy, if miserable exposé of being poor in modern Britain. But despite there being times when I had a lump in my throat, there is also a lot of humour – I was grinning through much of the journey to Scotland and more than once laughed out loud. Any book that manages to make me both laugh and come near to weeping clearly has fully engaged my feelings.
Does it all come right in the end? After all, that is the classical definition of a comedy – not a story that is humorous, but one that ends happily. Well, I think it probably does. But this isn’t some unqualified fairy tale ending – I personally would welcome revisiting this particular family some ten years down the line because I have my doubts as to just how well it all works out. But whether you believe they ultimately manage to prevail or not – I recommend you give the book a go.