DUELING REVIEW: The Switch by Beth O’Leary
Jennie: I was alerted to the terrific debut The Flatshare by Janine’s review last year, and read it myself earlier this year. Janine gave it an A-, but I liked it so much I gave it a straight A, which is rare for me. When she suggested we review O’Leary’s second book together, I was entirely game.
I was then less sure when I read the synopsis: Leena Cotton and her grandmother Eileen decide to “switch lives” for two months. Leena will stay in Eileen’s cottage in the small British village of Hamleigh-in-Harksdale, while Eileen will come to London and live in Leena’s posh apartment with her two roommates. The blurb felt high-concept and a bit gimmicky to me. Luckily, I was able to get past my preconceptions, and appreciate what the book had to offer. Janine, what did you think of the set-up?
Janine: The Flatshare was at least as high concept IMO. I did feel less drawn to this premise but I think it’s more because, while equally gimmicky, it was less fresh.
Jennie: Exactly – The Flatshare gimmick was something I’d never seen before. Also, the epistolary aspect of that book was a huge draw for me.
Janine: The Switch was a hybrid of a more traditional romance setup and a pretty typical chick lit setup. I’ve read many a romance where the heroine finds herself and her love in the country after living in the big city. A romantic triangle is a common trope in chick lit—the heroine is stuck on the wrong guy.
When a setup is unexciting to me, I’m less inclined to extend it my willingness to go along. To the extent that the plot had some freshness, it was due to the significant presence of Eileen, the grandmother character. We don’t see many 79-year-old heroines in any genre.
Jennie: Leena Cotton is 29, driven and ambitious, and a bit broken – she is still in the throes of deep grief over the death of her only sibling, Carla, less than a year before. As the story begins, she completely blanks during an important presentation at work (Leena’s a consultant), and her boss tells her she’s being given a two-month paid sabbatical, no ifs, ands or buts. Leena isn’t happy – though she’s been having unusual trouble concentrating at work, work is her life, and without it she doesn’t know what she’ll do with herself.
Eileen Cotton is 79; she lives alone since her feckless husband Wade left her for their dance instructor four months earlier. As the story opens, Eileen is surveying the local men as possible romantic prospects, and finding slim pickings. When Leena comes for a visit, and the two get a chance to talk, Leena hatches the “switch” plan. It’s mostly (in her mind) for Eileen, who admits that she missed the chance to go to London and “change the world” and “be somebody important” when she was younger. She married Wade and had her only daughter, Marian (Leena and Carla’s mother), and settled in Hamleigh, and that was that.
So Eileen packs up her things and takes Leena’s up-to-date cell phone and laptop, leaving Leena with Eileen’s older gadgets.
Janine: The gadget piece was where I felt the strain of the gimmick most. I couldn’t imagine a 29-year-old management consultant forfeiting her smartphone.
Jennie: I thought it was silly but it did end up having some significance in plot machinations later.
Janine: Another contrivance like that was that Leena and Eileen hardly spoke to each other at all for the four weeks they were apart. If I was taking on someone else’s home and friends, I would want that person’s advice and opinions.
Jennie: I agree, though I thought it was meant to illustrate how settled they each became in their “new” lives.
Eileen also leaves Leena with an extensive list of things to do, things Eileen usually handles as an integral part of the fabric of life in Hamleigh.
Off the bat, one of the things I liked about Eileen and Leena (who is actually an Eileen as well; she’s named after her grandmother) is that they are both go-getters. I don’t necessarily relate to that personality type, but I appreciate seeing it in female characters, because it feels like a rarity.
Janine: I’m going to disagree a bit. A certain kind of go-getter is pretty common in romance—the kind who likes to bake and clean, patch up her friends’ relationships, and / or one who work directly under the CEO (and not in a secretarial role). Heroines in NA romances can be stellar students at Ivy League universities, too. This book nods in those directions; the big difference is that the go-getting tendency is articulated and pointed out by other characters.
Jennie: You’re right; I have seen this more in the NA romances I read. But I am not a big contemporary reader, period, so I’ve never quite gotten over the stereotype common in a lot of older contemps – a passive heroine who gravitates towards “womanly” pursuits – owning a craft shop, for instance (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
Janine: (Quite a few contemporary romances have come far since those days!)
Jennie: Plus, both Eileen and Leena just had an unusual amount of energy, which is something I’ve seen more typically in heroes.
Janine: Yes, that’s true.
Jennie: Leena and her friend and co-worker, Bee, have plans to start their own consultancy firm eventually. Being unwillingly sabbaticaled initially stresses her, but once she settles in Hamleigh she takes up her grandmother’s various projects (Eileen’s on the Neighborhood Watch committee, and deeply involved in the planning of the village May Day celebration), as well as developing some of her own.
Eileen goes to London to find adventure and romance (and she does!), but she also takes on, almost unconsciously, the responsibility for bettering the lives of the people around her. London life is quite different from Hamleigh, Eileen quickly realizes, and she sets out to get to know her neighbors and create connections among them. She makes the lives of the people around her better and richer. Her main project involves making the common area of their apartment building an inviting meeting space for the inhabitants and setting up outings and activities there for lonely local seniors.
The Switch was a charming, fun read. It didn’t quite have the emotional heft for me that The Flatshare did; even while I was enjoying it, I was aware that a lot of the plot machinations felt a bit pat. I was going to say that’s not a criticism, but I guess it is – though sometimes I *like* pat plot machinations, and so I can’t say it made the book less enjoyable for me. But maybe it made me take it a bit less seriously?
Janine: Yes, I agree this one read bumpier than The Flatshare did due to contrivances in the plot. I also think it may have chewed off more than it could swallow with regard to the recent death of Carla (more on that later).
Jennie: Some niggles; Leena bumbles several times early on in Hamleigh, and that annoyed me, given how competent she was supposed to be. She loses a neighbor’s dog while walking him, missteps several times with her new neighbors, and burns a lot of baking projects. I don’t love bumbling heroines in general, and again, given the picture I had of Leena, the behavior didn’t quite fit. Luckily, once she found her footing, she was the Leena that I expected her to be, and very fun to watch.
Eileen was really lovable, but I wondered about a couple of things with her: how breezily she dismissed the desertion of a husband she must have been married to for 50+ years. From Leena’s point of view, her grandfather Wade was kind of a nonentity, and Eileen is better off without him. But his running off felt like an unnecessary plot detail when Wade could have died 10 years earlier and then I wouldn’t have expected any fallout in the story from his absence.
Janine: Yeah, I noted that too. I found it hard to believe that Wade would be so indifferent. His twenty-something granddaughter had died after a long and painful bout with cancer within less than a year. I can see that straining a marriage and causing a man to go into a coup de foudre romance or to run off with another woman in a futile attempt to get away from all the heartache. But that’s not what happened here. He was indifferent not only to his wife but also to his daughter and his granddaughters. That kind of heartlessness is emotionally abusive, but he was never described in those terms.
I wondered if the reason for Wade’s cheating was to make us more sympathetic to Eileen’s peccadilloes. From a writerly perspective, his cheating does serve to make readers view her as deserving of and long overdue for a good-time fling in a way that widowing her might not have done as successfully.
Jennie: Between Wade, Leena’s unnamed father and at least one other character, men do not come off very well in The Switch.
Janine: You’re right, three is a lot in one book. But there were enough nice men in the book that this didn’t stand out for me.
Jennie: We don’t see much of Eileen’s grief over the loss of Carla; she mostly deals with her death in relation to the pain that her daughter Marian and Leena are going through. I would expect a more traumatized response from a woman who lost her granddaughter and her husband (albeit in different ways) in the space of a year.
Janine: Yes! That was another thing I noted.
Even with Leena and to a lesser extent with Marian, Carla’s death seemed more there to serve as a wedge between them than to create a genuine sense of loss. I never got a strong sense of who Carla was or what they missed about her—what made her distinct from any sister / daughter / granddaughter. It was mentioned that she was fiercely determined, but not shown in any anecdotes. She had piercings and that was about it.
Jennie: Yeah, I thought there was an attempt to bring Carla to life as a spirited and lively young woman, but I wish there had been more attention given to really filling out her character and her relationships with Leena, Marian and Eileen.
Janine: Agreed. In a book with a recently-dead loved one I need to know that person as a character, or at least to understand how that person differed from others in the book and how they affected the bereaved while they were alive.
Jennie: I think one of my problems was that I couldn’t help but compare the trauma (Carla’s death) in The Switch to the trauma (Richie’s imprisonment) in The Flatshare. That’s probably not fair of me, but I felt there was an inherent comparison and The Switch suffered for it. (I mean, not only was Richie not dead, but he was charming and had me rooting for him almost immediately.)
Janine: Do you mean that Richie’s situation was treated with more emotional gravitas than Eileen and Leena’s? If so, I agree (and would say the same of Tiffy’s backstory in The Flatshare as well).
Jennie: I felt like it had more emotional heft, both in the way it was dealt with (Carla seeming all but forgotten for swathes of The Switch) and because Richie was a character who was present in the story and thus he had an advantage, in a way, over Carla (though this again highlights what I think we both feel – that more could have been done to have Carla come to life on the page, even if she wasn’t alive in the story).
One of the main subplots of The Switch has to do with Leena reconciling with her mother; Leena is angry that Marian supported Carla’s wish not to undergo further treatment for her cancer. I thought that conflict was well-done and poignant.
Janine: It made sense but I wanted it to be more heartrending.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare The Switch to The Flatshare, but The Flatshare made me cry and The Switch did not.
Jennie: Romance is not the main focus of The Switch, though there are romances for both Leena and Eileen. Leena’s actually got a boyfriend throughout the story, Ethan, a co-worker who is as much of a workaholic as she is. But given his lack of attention to her in the course of the story (he keeps cancelling visits to Hamleigh to see her), it’s not surprising that Leena gets close to Jackson Greenwood, a local school teacher who she knew, but was not close to, as a child).
Janine: It’s mentioned that Jackson was very different as a child but not how or why he’d grown out of his sullenness. Perhaps it was just there for a meet cute but it read like a dropped thread.
Jennie: Jackson is very mellow and honestly didn’t make a huge impression on me, but he seemed like a good guy; he’s beloved by the various elderly residents of Hamleigh. I wouldn’t have minded more evidence of the chemistry between him and Leena, but you can’t have everything.
Janine: I liked Jackson. I liked the way his physicality was described, I liked that he was a schoolteacher and I liked the wrinkles in his relationship with his young daughter. His laid-back personality seemed like it could balance out Leena’s type A tendencies. His puppy and the seniors’ love for him were perhaps too much whipped cream atop the sundae, though.
I also wanted him to get angry at Leena at least once so I could feel that anger was in his repertoire. Without something like that he seems a little too perfect.
Jennie: Eileen sets up a dating profile when she gets to London, with the help of Leena’s friends. She meets and begins a no-strings-attached relationship with a stage actor named Tod, as well as indulging in some online flirtations. I liked the rare portrayal of late-in-life romance.
Janine: I liked that too, but…
Janine: I thought the Eileen part of the story more unconventional and therefore more absorbing than the Leena part, and Eileen also had the steeper arc. In a book about self-discovery, Eileen was the one who discovered herself more.
On the downside, her arc read as even more contrived than Leena’s. What are the chances that a number of young hipsters would congregate around a 79-year-old and follow in her footsteps like newly-imprinted ducklings? That she could achieve her goal of creating a new seniors center so fast? And that a handsome, sophisticated actor would enter her life so soon after her arrival in London? Did you feel that way, Jennie?
Jennie: I did, and yet, because it was charming and pleasant, I kind of liked it. I can step back and ding the book for manipulations and not being realistic, but at the same time admit that it mostly hit the spot for me.
Janine: You’re right, it’s intended to be a fantasy and in that sense, it’s no more outlandish than many other genre books.
Jennie There are a number of secondary characters in both Hamleigh and London, and they added to the story (especially the elderly characters – Leena makes a connection with a nonagenarian named Nicola who is a riot).
Janine: The scene in which Leena gets caught flat-footed at the first meeting of the Neighborhood Watch committee (not realizing that it’s really a village gossip committee) was hilarious.
The seniors were great, but it was weird to me that other than her mother, Jackson, and a woman named Kathleen who plays a very minor role, everyone Leena knew in Hamleigh was a senior citizen. Were there no other people her own age in the village? Presumably the schoolkids had parents, but other than Kathleen, we saw none of them. It got so that I visualized Hamleigh as full of the silver-haired, like a retirement community.
Jennie: I wondered about that too!
I felt that the ending had a slight “country life is better than city life” bent, which I tend to be sensitive about, but it wasn’t overly obnoxious.
Janine: Yes. I don’t like that trope but it was more subtle here than in many books. There was another thing near the end that bugged me a bit.
What did you think about the humor, Jennie? For me it’s the best aspect of O’Leary’s voice. Various remarks, thoughts and analogies amused me. For example:
I try to meet his eye, but he’s preoccupied: all the elderly ladies have gravitated Jackson’s way, and he’s now wearing a woman on each arm like Hugh Hefner, only with all the relevant people’s ages swapped over.
Jennie: I enjoyed the humor – the bit where the Neighborhood Watch takes up a discussion about whether culottes are “back” made me laugh.
Janine: I laughed quite a bit. I kept reading funny parts to my husband.
Jennie: It’s hard for me not to compare The Switch to The Flatshare, since I really loved that book so much. It does fall slightly short, but I still enjoyed it enough to give The Switch a B+.
Janine: I enjoyed The Switch a lot too, but almost as soon as I began to really think about it, the novel fell apart. Discussing The Switch with you brought even more contrivances to my attention. I’d have said it was a B while I read it, but a mere six hours after I finished, it dropped to a C+, and now that a few more days have gone by it’s a C.