BOOK REC: The Switch – Beth O’Leary

Author: Beth O’Leary (website)

UK Publisher: Quercus

Genre: Contemporary romantic comedy

See Also: The Flatshare

Leena is too young to feel stuck.

Eileen is too old to start over.

Maybe it’s time for The Switch…

Ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, Leena escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Newly single and about to turn eighty, Eileen would like a second chance at love. But her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen…

So Leena proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love, and Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire. But with a rabble of unruly OAPs to contend with, as well as the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – local schoolteacher, Leena learns that switching lives isn’t straightforward. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, and with the online dating scene. But is her perfect match nearer to home than she first thought?

I read this when I was feeling very stuck in a rut with my reading. This year has felt – for me at least – a lot harder in terms of trying to disconnect from life and really connect with some fiction. The ability to just sink into something and let it go has been a struggle for all of 2021, which has kept my reading count a lot lower than I anticipated and made it harder to keep up to date with this blog.

HOWEVER.

After so enjoying The Flatshare, I treated myself to The Switch based on recommendations that said this was even better than the first book. I was sceptical – I loved The Flatshare. I struggled to see how a book with a frankly Hallmark-movie premise (career-woman moves to small rural town and learns the meaning of love) could top it.

I don’t know that I was wrong, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, just about as much as I enjoy a surprisingly well-constructed thematic romcom from Hallmark after a few glasses of wine. When a trope is done well it really does just hit the spot, you know? And – as with The Flatshare – this is a trope done very well, with fun and fleshed-out characters, and a delightful spin on well-known genre stylings.

O’Leary has a way with characters, she can handle them lightly and still get the most out of them, both in terms of emotional and comedic impact. In this, with the added cast of an elderly peanut gallery, she manages to milk the absolute most out of each moment and maximise comedic chaos (my favourite) while still ensuring there is a wonderful sensitivity to the emotional payoff. Once again, O’Leary threads into a fluffy and theoretically simple comic narrative layers of pathos that hit you unexpectedly, dealing with characters’ mental health, self-esteem, and the reality of relationship expectations in older generations – in particular those which are abusive, but where people feel they cannot leave due to the expectations and traditions they were brought up with.

This in some ways is thematically similar to The Flatshare, where she dealt with the long-term impact of abusive relationships (whether physical or emotional) on self-esteem and the psychological damage they can cause. However, given the split perspective of this novel, between grandmother Eileen and granddaughter Leena, I wonder if she was able to really give the same amount of time to the subject as she was in The Flatshare. It was wonderfully done, but perhaps not explored as fully as in the previous novel.

It’s hard to explain how I enjoyed seeing the split between two generations, the differing perspectives of a young protagonist and an older one, as well as the familial bonds that bring them together, while also acknowledging that the reality of two heroines is that neither gets as much time as you would like. This would perhaps seem counter-intuitive – Claire, you cry, Leon and Tiffy split the narrative in The Flatshare! Surely this is the same! And you would perhaps have a point, except that in The Flatshare Tiffy and Leon are working towards the same happy ending. While they each take opposing points on the narrative, by and large the narrative arc is the same: their relationship, their existence together.

In The Switch, while Eileen and Leena inform each other’s experience, their narrative arcs and romances are their own. They interweave, they are not dependent on the other. This means that, instead of having a whole book to explore each character’s revelations, developments and romances, they each – realistically – have half a book.

O’Leary manages this beautifully. Neither feels rushed, neither Leena or Eileen feels short-changed or overlooked by this storyline, nor do any of the wonderful, colourful supporting cast. If anything, the fact that I wanted longer to spend with the characters can only be a testament to the wonderful world she has built here, the families and communities constructed which, like The Flatshare, are rich, fun, and really rather wonderful.

After a stressful, horrible couple of years, this is the perfect feel-good book to curl up with over the holiday break. While it might follow the rough template of your average Hallmark Christmas movie, O’Leary adds depth and poignance to her story, developing her characters wonderfully and giving you something more than fluff. Her novels are sweet, sensitive and just the ticket.

Briefly:

  • A lovely, warm-hearted romance, which explores family relationships and the way traumas and stresses can sit with you, and the gentleness which can help heal.
  • Two delightful love stories, both with perfect spark and sweetness, across two generations make a lovely contrasting patchwork in their differences and similarities.
  • O’Leary has some great moments of chaos in this, my favourite parts in any comedic book, where a group of characters manages to overwhelm and unsuspecting bystander by just being too chaotic to handle. It’s all quite lovely.

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