I've been casting around for seasonal reads this month - either festive or wintery - so when the opportunity arose to review the new novel by Lulu Taylor, I was quick to put up my hand.
The back cover notes set the scene and then the prologue lets us - the readers - into a secret being kept by old friends Francesca and Dan. My initial reaction was to rant to the bloke about the prologue in a "what was the author thinking giving away the whole point of the book" kinda way. He smiled and reminded me of a couple of literary examples where this practice is followed, but I was busy doing the "feeling smug, 'cos I know I'm right thing".
I picked the book up again a few days later and started to make progress. Mostly it unfolded as expected: lovely sweet wife, idiot-if-basically-decent husband, evil manipulative female friend.
Oh the story: well, there's Dan, who's a bit gorgeous but knows it and there's Francesca who's Dan's dear friend from University. Francesca is attractive in a glossy, high fashion style, which is fine, as she's married to mega wealthy Walt. After University, Dan meets and falls for Olivia, the lovely inside-and-out young thing who he pursues until she gives in. Old friends of his tell Olivia that she has brought the best out in Dan. But there is always Francesca, who has that undeniably close relationship with Dan. He insists that their relationship is one akin to older brother-younger sister and Olivia, realising that trust is key in a marriage, swallows her instincts.
But the happy couple struggle with fertility problems. After unsuccessful rounds of expensive and emotionally stressful IVF, Dan meets Francesca for a drink. He is worried about Olivia, for whom having children has become everything. When told that her eggs are not viable, Olivia wants to try using donor eggs, so that the child will have Dan as their father. But Dan cannot accept having any unknown factor ... and so opens the door to Francesca hatching her plot.
Once the children are born (for the happy couple have twins), Olivia whisks the family off to Argentina. Dan has plans to write having been made redundant, so their savings will stretch further by living with Olivia's parents. Two years later they return and Francesca sees the opportunity to enter their lives once more. She persuades them to live - rent free - in a small cottage attached to a large Elizabethan mansion which Walt has decided "to save". It needs work - lots of it - and Francesca will have to visit regularly to consult and supervise. Despite this allowing Dan to complete his unfinished manuscript, he isn't keen Olivia can only see the benefit of bringing up the twins away from London in beautiful grounds, with both parents on hand every day.
However, when Francesca arrives for a visit, she simply moves in and doesn't leave. She doesn't hide her adoration for the twins and spoils them rotten. Dan's uneasiness builds until the day when Francesca speaks to him of "their" children - his and hers. He tries to persuade her to go, to leave his family alone. Its too late. Olivia returns from a day out and hears the truth: that Dan has conspired with Francesca who donated her eggs - secretly - to allow Olivia to conceive. Olivia's day out with an old friend has also told her the truth about Dan and Francesca's past ... and it is all too much; she takes the twins and flees back to Argentina.
So, how does it all end? Does Dan win Olivia back? What happens to Francesca? Does she fight for the twins? There is a twist, but you'll have to read the book to find out.
Running alongside, there are flashbacks to the tale of the girl's school housed in the mansion during the sixties. The tale of the scandal which closed the school, the scandal of a girl falling pregnant to an Irish navvie who was constructing the swimming pool. There's also a nice twist to this tale.
Whilst this isn't high-brow, it is a pleasant easy read. The prologue giving away the main point and the stereotypical characterisations are balanced by the descriptive passages being really well-written and information-rich, together with the unexpected plot twists.
With grateful thanks to Mumsnet and Pan Macmillan for providing me with a free copy in return for an honest review