When her grandmother dies, Betty finds herself free to experience the life she has put on hold while acting as her grandmother’s main carer, however she is mystified when Arlette’s will includes a beneficiary unknown to anyone in the family. Who was Clara Pickle and what was she to Arlette?
Leaving her home on Guernsey, Betty moves to Soho where she hopes to find Clara by following the sparse clues Arlette left behind. As Betty settles into her grungy new flat, she discovers the realities of Soho are not quite the romantic picture her grandmother related to her and her efforts to get a decent job seem doomed from the start.
Things start to look more positive when Betty discovers a bona fide rock star is living across her backyard and she eventually becomes nanny to his three young children. As Betty finally catches a glimpse of a more glamorous lifestyle, her search for Clara yields some surprising results and Betty makes a few realisations about her own life along the way.
I’ve read quite a few of Lisa Jewell’s novels and sometimes they are a hit or a miss, however I really enjoyed Before I Met You because Jewell managed to keep me guessing as to Clara’s identity right until the end. The novel is a dual narrative with Betty’s arrival in Soho in the 1990s being contrasted with that of Arlette in the 1920s when the jazz scene was just beginning. Jewell describes both decades realistically and there is enough detail there to bring both time periods to life while keeping them distinct. Soho in the 1990s is a rather tired and worn place compared to the bright lights of the clubs in the 1920s, yet at the same time there are many similarities as poverty is evident in both periods but not dwelt upon.
For Arlette, post-war London offers some exciting opportunities and a new sense of liberation as she enjoys the jazz clubs which bring her into contact with artists and musicians. Arlette soon finds herself caught between two very different men, Gideon, a young artist desperate to paint her portrait, and Godfrey, a black jazz musician from the United States. As Arlette spends more time with Godfrey she realises she is falling in love with him but an inter-racial romance isn’t without its problems and there are many obstacles in their path. Just as Arlette seems to have it all worked out, and horrific event forces her to push Godfrey away and it seems like their love is doomed.
For Betty, her new found freedom from her caring responsibilities means she is finally free to move to London where she has dreamt of living since she visited in her childhood. Armed with some money left to her by Arlette, Betty rents a flat in Soho which turns out to be far smaller and seedier than advertised but she makes the most of the situation as she is determined to enjoy the bright lights of Soho. However, Betty struggles to find a decent job and has to settle for working in a burger bar which lacks the glamour of the night clubs she envisioned but she has little choice as her inheritance won’t last long in London.
Betty’s first new acquaintance is John, a laconic vinyl seller, who has a stall just outside of Betty’s flat but they don’t get off to a great start when they first meet. John later becomes instrumental in helping Betty find information on Clara Pickle, mainly by introducing Betty to his sister who sells vintage clothes and has an interest in the early jazz era in the area. Betty and John do have a bit of chemistry once they get over their initial understanding but I don’t feel it was explored enough as more attention is given to Betty’s relationship with her rock star. Dominic Jones, who has returned to live in Soho after the break up of his marriage, crosses paths with Betty on a regular basis and he eventually hires her to help look after his children. Inevitably, Betty ends up having a one night stand with Dominic but she doesn’t want to be just another notch on his bed post so she nips their romance in the bud even though he protests to loving her. The love triangle between Betty, John and Dominic is rather spoilt by the lack of attention given to John though and it suffers credibility as a result.
Both women are likeable narrators and I like the fact Arlette’s story never moves too far ahead of Betty’s investigation which helps keep us guessing. There are a few twists before everything is concluded and Betty learns enough lessons along the way to help her make the decisions she needs to in her own life. I’m not going to reveal the mystery of who Clara was, suffice to say I had two theories as the story unfolded but I was actually wrong on both occasions which makes me happy!