1957, south-east suburbs of London.
Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and — on the brink of forty — living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.
When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness — and when she does fall, she falls hard.
But he is married, and to her friend — who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness…
But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.
Well, what can I really say other than I LOVED every page of this book. The story, the characters, the setting.. for me it was an absolute winner, and here I’ll try to do it justice by explaining why I thought so…
Firstly, the plot itself is intriguing, entertaining and a little bit different. Set during the 1950s in London, Jean – a features writer for a newspaper, often stuck reporting on the mundane stories and those seen as more suited to women, such as cleaning and cooking tips – discovers a story concerning a woman called Gretchen who claims her daughter was a virgin birth. Jean becomes close to the family, including Gretchen’s husband Howard, and the story becomes less about this strange claim of Gretchen’s (though that does still feature plenty) and more about Jean’s relationship with them all, especially Howard and Gretchen’s daughter Margaret. The story isn’t action-packed or anything close to a thriller, but still, I found it utterly absorbing. I didn’t want to put this novel down.
The people in this novel are another huge plus for me – they are all, if not completely likeable, then still convincing and well-rounded characters. I can imagine knowing someone just like them. I loved Jean and found her a brilliantly stoic, practical and smart woman, so reading about her falling in love with Howard is really enjoyable. Howard is an equally wonderful character, as is Margaret, and Gretchen – though difficult and prone to making bad decisions at times – is also a really interesting character.
If you think this sounds a bit fluffy and lighthearted, you’d be wrong – there are heartbreaking moments in this book too, and moments that left me thinking about long after I’d finished it. And can I just say – that ending! I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an intense rollercoaster of emotions as in those last few pages. I won’t say any more as I’d hate to give too much away. All I’ll finish on is: read this novel, it’s wonderful!