Well, I seem to have been well and truly ‘Eileened’. This was the perfect lockdown read for me. Funny, moving, romantic and uplifting all at once. One year on from the death of her sister Carla, Leena is treading water. She’s still living down in London, still doing the same job and is still with the same boyfriend, Ethan. She lives in the same flatshare in Shoreditch with her friends Fitz and Martha. She and her best friend Bee have talked about setting up her own business, but she’s still waiting for the right time. She’s still not talking to her mother either; since Carla died their relationship has been very strained. In fact, the best relationship Leena has is with her namesake, her grandmother Eileen. Eileen still lives in Leena’s home village and is a force to be reckoned with; she organises village events, coordinates the Neighbourhood Watch scheme and knows everything going on in the surrounding Dales villages. So, when Leena makes mistakes at work and is asked to take a sabbatical, Bee thinks Eileen is the best person to get her back on track and she is packed off to stay for a few days.
Despite being incredibly busy, Eileen also needs a change. She has been supporting her daughter who has had several breakdowns since Carla’s death. They call them ‘wobbles’ but it has been a far more serious depression than Leena knows. Eileen feels a bit jaded and would like to meet a man and have an adventure. They come up with the idea of a switch. Leena could move back to the Dales and take over her grandmother’s life, while Eileen moves in with Martha and Fitz down in London. Leena will be able to use her organisational skills to manage the annual village festival. Meanwhile, Fitz will help Eileen set up a dating profile online and she will get to feel the excitement of living in a city. What could possibly go wrong?
I fell in love with Eileen straight away, she’s ballsy and packed full of energy. She’s also incredibly loving and generous. Despite going through her own grieving process she has been supporting her daughter and granddaughter, as well as trying to cope with the tension between them. Eileen is a ‘fixer’ at heart too, she won’t let anyone go unnoticed or be ignored. Not only does she make friends with Fitz and Martha, she also wants to meet and befriend Bee. Here she really does start meddling in order to help Bee out with her own dating dilemmas. She wants to make use of the communal space in the block of flats and comes up with the idea of social club for Shoreditch’s elderly residents. She soon gets everyone on board, except for one resident who is worried about strangers coming in and out. Eileen visits her in person and answers each of her concerns, eventually getting her involved too. She befriends Letitia, whose flat is full of incredible antiques, and won’t let her be a recluse. I love how Eileen never judges anyone. Despite what I might have expected of someone her age, she accepts everyone’s different way of living. When she meets a man who offers her a no-strings affair while she’s in London, she doesn’t dismiss it. She accepts his offer and sees it as an adventure. The group help Eileen too, by advising on some wardrobe updates (culottes are back) and giving her an insight into a younger generation. Despite all this excitement, she surprises herself by chatting to Arnold, her neighbour back home who also has an online dating profile. She’s always seen him as a grumpy old man, and they’ve always had a prickly relationship. Will they get on any better online?
Leena also starts a tentative truce with Arnold. He’s typically grumpy at first but she perseveres and finds herself popping over for mid-morning coffee. The many committees Leena has to attend on Eileen’s behalf don’t go according to plan at first, not helped by a first impression of her losing one member’s dog. Leena remembers Jackson from school and he is now a primary school teacher with a rather unruly dog. When Leena loses him the whole village is on the alert and he’s found wrecking a neighbour’s garden. Not everyone is as forgiving as Jackson. They’re also not keen on new ideas, however well researched and organised. Leena finds that her event planning skills need something extra, local knowledge and know-how. Leena’s relationship with her Mum is at best frostily polite, but things take a bad turn when they have a screaming match in the street. It seems that Marian supported Carla’s choice to stop treatment, whereas Leena felt there were more options and tried to push her sister into fighting on. For Leena, this is the first time she has met an obstacle she can’t climb over. In her eyes, Marian failed Carla, then failed Leena by being so caught up in her own grief she stopped being a Mum. Eileen worries that instead of their proximity forcing them to work through their differences, it has made things even worse. It becomes clear that Marian has been so fragile, Eileen has feared she might commit suicide. Can they get past this, or are they destined to remain estranged forever?
It was interesting that Eileen and Leena are both similar in their approach to life, but by switching have still made differences to those around them. Leena thinks she has been spending time with Arnold and her Gran’s best friend Betty, because they’re isolated and lonely. There’s a point in the novel where she realises that they’re becoming friends in their own right and she looks forward to spending time with them. I particularly enjoyed how she realises that Betty’s husband might be abusive and controlling. Betty is very nervous when her husband phones to ask about his tea and when Leena pops round unexpectedly. It’s something all the friends have been aware of, but they’ve been too scared to tackle it. Leena has nothing to lose, she’s only there for a short time, so she tells Betty that she doesn’t have to live like this. She also offers a bed, if ever she should need it day or night. In London, Eileen talks to Martha about her relationship with Yaz and worries that she’s still over in the US, rather than with her pregnant partner. However, she is quick to accept that this generation does things differently. She’s not so hands off with Bee though, taking her on a blind date with a young man from Yorkshire who she thinks will fit the bill. Both learn how important their support networks are, despite having generational differences, the bonds run just as deep.
Eileen learns that as an independent woman she can choose whether a romantic relationship is for life, as it would have been when she was young, or just for a season. She most definitely has an adventure, but will it be so transformative that she makes long term changes to her life? For Leena the experience shows her she could choose to live at a different pace. In this small village, where she and Carla grew up, people talk about her sister quite naturally and it helps. Here she can’t avoid her grief and has to slowly work through it, alongside others who loved and miss Carla too. If she were to stay, there are so many things to think about: her relationship with Ethan; her friendship and possible business plans with Bee; whether to go back to her flat and her job. Could a tall, handsome primary school teacher feature in those plans? This book is light and uplifting, despite visiting some tough themes with Betty’s story and the loss of Carla. I found myself wondering what life changes I could make and Inexplicably ended up clearing out the wardrobe! The characters are eccentric but very lovable, especially grandmother and granddaughter. It gives a great message for these trying times – life is short, and if you’re not happy, you have the power to make changes. Happiness and peace can be found whether you’re in Thailand on a yoga retreat, in Shoreditch or in a picturesque little village in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s within all of us to choose it.
Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.