Desert Isle Keeper
Beth O’Leary’s 2019 début The Flatshare was just marvelous – our reviewer gave it an A-, and it was an A for me personally. But the sophomore slump has struck more than one début star, so it was with both hope and nervousness that I volunteered to review The Switch, about a grandmother from the Yorkshire Dales who trades apartments with her London-based granddaughter. The verdict? No slump here – The Switch is a heartfelt and often quite funny story that celebrates changing yourself by changing your point of view, at any age.
There are two Eileen Cottons: Eileen Cotton, of the tiny Yorkshire village of Hamleigh-In-Harkdale, and her namesake granddaughter Leena Cotton, business consultant, of Shoreditch, London. Leena, having lost her younger sister Carla to cancer, is close to a nervous breakdown. Her boss (and we should all have a boss so supportive) gives her two months leave to recharge. Leena goes to visit Eileen, recently separated from her husband and frustrated by the dearth of men in her village. Leena suggests a swap: Eileen will stay in Leena’s London flat and meet men using dating apps, while Leena stays in the village to recuperate – and maybe to find some closure about Carla with her mother Marian.
I’ve come to read ‘flawed’ heroine as a code for someone who strikes me as mean, so it was a relief to read Leena Cotton, who is absolutely flawed, but in a completely relatable way. She is in a fog of grief, and has fallen out with her mother, blaming Marian for Carla not seeking experimental cancer treatment. She is fumbling at work and in her personal life. I just wish the author hadn’t given her quite so much actual physical slapstick fumbling, which generally is a plot device (‘Fall into the hero’s arms!’). This story is above that.
Eileen Cotton is, by contrast, pretty good at just about everything, but has settled into a rut. Hers is less of a journey than Leena’s, but the chance to read a competent, sexual, fully-realized female septuagenarian whose age and desire are never played for laughs is so great that I’ll let slide the fact that she has a little less growing to do.
The book also takes a fair and nuanced look at both of its settings. In London, nobody knows their neighbors, but in Yorkshire, people know less about each other than they think they do. London has opportunities and energy; Yorkshire has traditions and comfort. London and Yorkshire both have jerks, and Yorkshire and London both have love. Both Leena and Eileen are better for having spent time in both places.
The Switch is one of those books that made me bump into things as I refused to put it down while going about my day. I’m thrilled that Beth O’Leary came back so strong in her second book, and I’m more eager than ever to see where she goes next.