Teenager Alice has escaped a terrible accident that left her friend Ella dead, hit by a lorry and killed outright. Her mum Carla worries about her so much and noticed a huge change in her daughter’s behaviour, even before the accident, but is unsure how to broach the subject and too nervous to push her into moving on in life. Carla doesn’t know how Ella’s parents have coped with her death, but she does know that if Alice had been take from her, she would have fallen to pieces. Constrained by their grief and anxieties, both mum and daughter are too scared to fully live. Then Alice ends up walking Flo’s dog. Flo is in her eighties and knows a thing or two about choosing to live life. She rues spending years married to a man she didn’t love, scared of taking a leap into the unknown till years later when his affair ended the marriage. Alone and free to do anything for the first time, Flo thought back to the example of her friend Lilli at finishing school and decided to take more chances. She’s had a long life with times of pure happiness, but some incredible lows too. Now she lives with her dog, Ernie, and earns a living creating lino prints in her garden studio to sell in local outlets. She can feel the anxiety in Alice and convinces her to try printing. Flo can see that she needs to learn mistakes don’t matter – in fact it’s the mistakes that often make the picture. She encourages Alice into applying for art college, but when that plan is pushed aside for a safer option, Flo knows she needs time with both mum and daughter. So she invites Alice and Carla to travel to France with her and meet her friend Lilli. They have been apart for 60 years, will they still know each other and will that friendship be there after what Flo did?
Flo has been inspired to find Lilli because of a book she wrote based on the girl’s shared past. Through each chapter the author takes us back to when the girls were roommates at finishing school in Lyon. Their families were of a similar class and had only one expectation of their daughters – that they marry well and be ready to run a household. However different Flo and Lilli were on the surface, both were stifled by the minutiae of table settings (three forks on the left of the plate must not be more than one inch from the edge of the table) flower arranging and party planning. Yet only one of them had the courage to risk her family’s wrath for some freedom and adventure. When Lilli meets a young man named Hugo there’s a spark between them, but the school would never allow them to meet. She uses her brother to write a letter, granting permission for her to be taken out once a week by their cousin. The couple are now allowed out more easily and spend their stolen afternoons in bed more often than not. A young woman called Celeste who is in the same circles, takes Lilli aside and warns her that Hugo might not be as in love as he seems. A warning that Lilli brushes aside, thinking Celeste is perhaps jealous. It isn’t long before she finds out that men can often walk away from an affair unscathed and women are left with the consequences.
I loved how these fundamental inequalities in society are picked up in the novel – that women are held to account, while men can simply move on and pick their next mark. I felt the fear of Flo and Lilli, terrified to step outside the rigid lines that their society dictates, but also full of regret for the time they wasted being conventional. I thought the author had a brilliant grasp of human psychology, showing beautifully how mental ill health can be passed on to the next generation. Carla is so fearful I sometimes found myself wincing as she spoke to her daughter, because I could see the damage her words would do. She’s so intent on protecting her daughter that she’s actually harming her. The sense of place created, whether in the surroundings of the artist studio or the incredible heat of the South of France, is incredible and so evocative. The stunning setting of Lilli’s home is idyllic and made me want to visit France. Aside from the character of Hugo, this is a novel peopled by women and it was great to see such a celebration of female friendship. Even Celeste, in her way, had tried to be a friend to Lilli and share some female wisdom. I loved how the author showed, with the benefit of hindsight, how important that shared wisdom is. Often we only see the benefits of learning from the women around us when we’re older. I also enjoyed the age difference between these friendships. This allowed the older friends learn about things that are current and new. Whereas the wisdom and past experience of the older friend filters down and supports the younger. Flo wants to make sure that neither Carla or Alice live in fear of their future, like she did. What she most admired about her friend Lilli was that she always took responsibility for her actions, even when the outcome was going to cause difficulty or even change her life forever. She simply embraced every challenge that came along. I read this so quickly, because I simply couldn’t tear myself away from the story of these four women. This book is beautifully written, moving and really celebrates the joy of female friendship.
Meet The Author
Caroline Bishop began her journalism career at a small arts magazine in London, after a brief spell in educational publishing. She soon moved to work for a leading London theatre website, for which she reviewed shows and interviewed major acting and directing stars. Caroline turned freelance in 2012 and a year later moved to Switzerland, where her writing veered towards travel and she has contributed to publications including the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph and BBC Travel, writing mainly about Switzerland, and co-wrote the 2019 edition of the DK Eyewitness Guide to Switzerland. For two years Caroline was editor of TheLocal.ch, an English-language Swiss news site, and it was during this time that she became fascinated with aspects of Swiss history and culture, particularly the evolution of women’s rights.