Desert Isle Keeper
Clever, fresh, funny and fun, The Flatshare is one of the best romance novels of 2019. I’m not quite sure how I missed it when it came out in May, but if you did, too… well, make time for this absolute gem of a book now.
After a traumatic break-up with her on again, off again boyfriend Justin, Tiffy Moore is moving out. Although she loves her job as an assistant editor for Butterfingers Press, a boutique publisher specializing in crafting and DIY books, it pays below a London living wage. With limited funds – especially after offering to reimburse Justin for the past three month’s rent -Tiffy’s options are limited. Alongside two of her closest friends (Gerty and Mo), she’s spent the past few days touring a series of awful flats – each one worse than the one before it. Today’s flat is the worst of the lot, but Tiffy is desperate. Unwilling to borrow money from her friends or sleep on their floor, she’s decided it’s either this apartment or the flatshare posted on Gumtree:
Double bedroom in sunny one-bed Stockwell flat, rent £350 per month including bills. Available immediately, for six months minimum.
Flat (and room/bed) is to share with twenty-seven-year-old palliative care nurse who works nights and is away weekends. Only ever in the flat 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday. All yours the rest of the time! Perfect for someone with 9 to 5 job.
To view, contact L. Twomey – details below.
Gerty and Mo are adamantly against the idea – but Tiffy calmly counters their arguments, telling them: “Obviously I’ll meet this L. Twomey person first. If we don’t get on, I won’t take it.”
Leon Twomey loves his job and his patients. Quiet, thoughtful, and kind, he tries and fails to keep his distance from the men, women, and children, for whom he cares. He’s also desperate – his younger brother Richie is in jail (convicted of an armed robbery he didn’t commit) – and Leon needs money to pay a lawyer to appeal the conviction. He thinks the flatshare idea is a brilliant and painless solution to the problem, although he’s not certain his girlfriend Kay will see it the same way. She doesn’t. But after a BIG argument, Kay agrees to the scheme – as long as she handles the rental transaction, and Leon agrees to never meet his flatmate. Uh oh.
Kay rents the flat to Tiffy, and the first half of the The Flatshare details the early days of the odd living arrangement between Tiff and Leon. Over leftovers and post-its, they become more than just flatmates, and O’Leary charms her readers watching their nascent friendship (and maybe more?! We hope!) unfold. We get to know Tiff and Leon (warts and all), and they sort of get to know each other. Finally free from Justin, Tiff starts to see just how toxic the relationship was, how Justin manipulated and controlled her. She finds a new happiness being on her own, and in sharing the flat with Leon, and although she wonders about her flatmate, she doesn’t push to meet him. Leon finds a similar contentment living with Tiff. He isn’t thrilled with all the clutter she’s contributed to the flat, or her oddly large collection of DIY-centric books (well, except for one), but she bakes and leaves funny notes, and he likes her. Dread over Richie’s slow-moving appeal is ever present, but he no longer needs to worry about money, and his relationship with Kay is… mostly fine.
Once the unusual conceit of The Flatshare is established, I expected the novel to unfold like most other contemporary romances do. But Ms. O’Leary completely transcends the genre. There is a sexy romance, but it only develops late in the second half of the novel – and only after we’re wholly invested in Tiff and Leon as individuals. They don’t even meet each other until five months after Tiff moves in (in a hilarious surprise meeting)! Instead, via daily post-it notes, they learn about each other – sharing bits and pieces of themselves they don’t share with anyone else. The novel tightly tracks the evolution of this epistolary relationship – from awkward strangers to close friends – in sweet and charming daily notes. But even as this relationship becomes something ‘more,’ Ms. O’Leary uses their dual narratives to illustrate their daily lives and dramas. Their first meeting (awkward then awesome) is a lovely hint of what’s to come, and when the subsequent flirtatious post-its finally lead to their first actual ‘date’, Ms. O’Leary ramps up the sexual tension and turns the novel into the home stretch. It’s a neat trick watching her skilfully weave the romantic and non-romantic elements together – intersecting all the disparate pieces, deftly guiding the various plotlines to a supremely satisfying and romantic happily ever after.
While the relationship between Leon and Tiffy is terrific – and I enjoyed every bit of their slow, perfect progression from friends to lovers – The Flatshare is truly an ensemble piece, and the secondary characters elevate this novel from simply good to great. Richie, Gerty and Mo, are supremely well-realized, but Rachel (Tiffy’s loyal friend and co-worker) absolutely steals the show. I laughed out loud reading some of their exchanges, and I hope the author one day writes her story. She’s hilarious. And awesome. And loyal. There is a villain, too – but the author perfectly paces his appearances in the story for maximum impact. And although the relationship between Leon and Tiffy is mostly trouble free, the story occasionally goes dark as it explores Tiffy’s relationship with her ex and Richie’s experiences in jail; the author carefully juxtaposes these elements against an overwhelming sense of hopeful happiness, and they enrich the story without being too maudlin.
If I have any quibble with The Flatshare, it might be the lack of time spent with Leon and Tiffy as a romantic couple after the climatic events that mark the end of the novel. The author does such a terrific job developing their friendship and finally bringing them face to face, but our time with them as a happy couple isn’t nearly as long. I love the epilogue set two years later; I only wish it was longer!
The Flatshare is clever and sweet and funny and lovely, and one of my favorite books this year. Ms. O’Leary’s next novel, The Switch, is already in my shopping cart. This is a brilliant début from a talented new author.