Title: The Flatshare (2019)
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Quercus Books
Read: 30th April – 21st May 2019
Genre: contemporary; romance
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Tiffy and Leon share a flat. Tiffy and Leon share a bed. Tiffy and Leon have never met… Tiffy Moore needs a cheap flat, and fast. Leon Twomey works nights and needs cash. Their friends think they’re crazy, but it’s the perfect solution: Leon occupies the one-bed flat while Tiffy’s at work in the day, and she has the run of the place the rest of the time. But with obsessive ex-boyfriends, demanding clients at work, wrongly imprisoned brothers and, of course, the fact that they still haven’t met yet, they’re about to discover that if you want the perfect home you need to throw the rulebook out the window…” (Synopsis from publisher)
“You’ve got to say this for desperation: it makes you much more open-minded. I really can see some positives in this flat. The technicolour mould on the kitchen wall will scrub off, at least in the short term. The filthy mattress can be replaced fairly cheaply. And you could definitely make the argument that the mushrooms growing behind the toilet are introducing a fresh, outdoorsy feel to the place.”
One of the biggest strengths of the novel was the narrative form which was purposely and perfectly suited to the story it was telling. Told through two points of view, The Flatshare immediately situates its readers and introduces its two protagonists, Tiffy and Leon, simply by the difference in how they tell their story through this first person perspective. Tiffy is very chatty, open, and bubbly, with an easy humour that makes her character easy to quickly warm to; Leon, meanwhile, is more reserved and quieter, a man of few words, and even less hobbies, who throws himself into his work as a palliative care nurse and tells his story through truncated sentences lacking the personal ‘I’ pronoun. Through such relatively simple differences in the way their perspectives are written, Beth O’Leary explores the characters of Tiffy and Leon before they’ve even done much in the book.
“Make mental note to listen to voicemail and change ringtone to something less embarrassing (this one is called ‘Jive’ and is far too funky for hospice setting. Not that funk does not have role in place of sickness, just that is not always appropriate).”
Elements of Tiffy’s life very much made me smile. As someone who works in publishing (albeit academic rather than trade) the sections when Tiffy was at work and dealing with editing niche manuscripts about woodworking and crocheting made me laugh in recognition, especially when a book unexpected to have mass appeal suddenly starts to generate buzz and she finds herself floundering to get the author to agree to do more publicity for its publication than anyone could have imagined. A lot of professional conversations she has felt so very relatable to me, as well as some of her work anxieties! Meanwhile Leon’s profession and whole life, in fact, is very different but, oddly, something I could find myself relating to too. He works in as a nurse in a hospice and cares for very ill patients, from an elderly man who’s in search of his long lost love from the war to a young girl whose condition doesn’t dampen her spirit one bit. Each of these characters, minor though they were in the grand scheme of things, felt so very fleshed out and I think that’s the sign of a contemporary/romance novel that is going the extra mile to feel grounded in reality and ensuring it paints its protagonists lives fully, rather than just focusing on cutesy scenes when they’re together, which Tiffy and Leon aren’t for a large portion of the narrative since they live/work to literally opposite shifts.
“I stop dead in my tracks. Someone behind me walks into me and swears (stopping abruptly in central London is a heinous crime, and immediately gives the people around you permission to kick you).”
One of the elements of The Flatshare that I appreciated most was the careful and respectful way that the author explored the subject of emotional abuse by a spouse. At first, when Tiffy talks of her ex boyfriend, the reader (as we’re seeing/hearing matters through Tiffy’s point of view) might reasonably presume him to be kind of annoying and needy at times but otherwise a typical ex. However, as the story progresses and Tiffy starts to come to terms with just how manipulative her ex was, the reader too realises the long-lasting effect his behaviour has had on his girlfriend and the real truth of his personality comes to light to readers almost at the same time as it does to Tiffy. I didn’t expect a novel that had such an adorable premise would deal very seriously with gaslighting but I was all the more thankful that it did tackle such real world issues. Similarly, Leon’s younger brother Ritchie finds himself in prison for a crime he decidedly did not commit, it’s an indictment of the state of the prison and justice system that it takes so long to overcome his solicitor’s ambivalence about the case in order to fight for an appeal to be heard in court – in fact, it’s only when Tiffy comes onto the scene that hope springs from an unexpected faction and Leon can once again dare to dream that he might be able to see his brother outside of prison walls again.
“I wake with a jolt that sends a shock of pain through my ankle. Crying out, I look around me. Floral wallpaper. Am I at home? Who’s that man in the chair by the door, reading … Twilight? Leon blinks at me, putting the book down in his lap. ‘You went from unconscious to judgemental very quickly there.’ “
From what initially seemed like a plot based around a well-trod (but nonetheless compelling) trope, Beth O’Leary wove a convincing and cute story of two very different characters whose journey to get to know one another through post-it notes, leftovers gifted to the other, and signs of their mutual inhabitance of the same flat (and the same bed) turned into something much more emotional and uplifting than I ever realised it could be. By weaving hilarious dialogue and situations with all too realistic social issues, O’Leary’s novel is a fun and touching debut that will stay with me for longer than comparative books in the genre would otherwise.
“Double bedroom in sunny one-bed Stockwell flat, rent £350 per month including bills. Available immediately, for six months minimum.”
Thank you to Quercus Books for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.