The Switch by Beth O’Leary – two women, generations apart but needing answers

The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Sometimes books that contain contemporary romance feature only young women like Leena, but this novel also looks at the character of Eileen who is about to turn eighty. In some ways it is Eileen who possesses the drive and imagination in this tale of two women who swop lives when disappointed in love and life. Both are affected by a common tragedy, they are both given the same name, but at least at the beginning are separated by decades and understanding. There is a certain amount of levelling up in terms of technology, and sometimes the work is tackled by other characters who surround both women. There are communities not only in the rural village where they are usually expected, but an emerging one in largely anonymous London. This is a mature and satisfying blend of north and south, romance and reality, love of various kinds and much more. Technically clever, as the two women narrate alternate chapters of their stories they meet unsuspected challenges that seem to come with living in each place, of a badly behaved dog or a lonely woman among others. There is genuine humour arising from situations, but also a real depth of feeling for the people that are in both places. This is a very enjoyable book on so many levels, funny, moving and impressive.

Leena is in a difficult place when the book begins, desperately worried about leading a presentation. The reason for her struggle is the death of her much loved sister Carla, which has left her mother completely stuck, and her grandmother Eileen vigilant about her daughter’s state.  Eileen is also coming to terms with her husband’s desertion which she is really happy about. It comes as she is running so many groups and events in the village, organising people’s lives on many levels. She realises that she is getting older and is determined to look for love one more time. Sadly the potential men in the village are not very desirable; she should know, she has made a list. When Leena turns up, she is distraught having been given two months paid leave which she has been told to take. Her boyfriend works in the same field, but has very little positive to offer her. It is decided that she will move into her grandmother’s house, while her grandmother moves into her shared house in London. It is a culture shock for both women, as Eileen has to come to terms with fast moving life in London, computers and new ways to meet people. Not that she is on her own in the flat; Leena’s flat mates are remarkable characters, and they need help just as much as the people in a tiny Yorkshire village used to in a different way. Meanwhile Leena discovers that life in a village has many responsibilities if she is really to take Eileen’s place. One job is taking a local teacher’s dog for a walk, a task for which she prepares thoroughly. A series of mishaps gives her an interesting introduction to the village, but she soon realises that people’s appearances are concealing a lot. 

This is a fascinating book of contemporary people in situations that are new to them. It is sharply observational, funny and moving, with surprises and twists that maintain the entertainment throughout. I really enjoyed this book, with the points it raises and the questions it poses. It has much to say about love, loss and new starts, real problems and potential answers. It is written with humour and an enormous understanding of people, and I recommend it.