My thanks to Anne Cater and the publishers, Picador Books for a review copy of Jack and Bet and for inviting me to take part in this tour. The decision to read and take part was my own, and this review forms my honest opinion.
A moving, funny and uplifting novel about an elderly couple, the son who is trying desperately to care for them and the young woman who will change their lives forever.
Even the longest marriages have their secrets . . .
Jack Chalmers is a man of few words, married to a woman of many. He and Bet have been together for seventy years – almost a lifetime – and happily so, for the most part.
All Jack and Bet want is to enjoy the time they have left together, in the flat they have tried to make their home. Their son Tommy has other ideas: he wants them to live somewhere with round-the-clock care, hot meals, activities. Bet thinks they can manage just fine.
When they strike up an unlikely friendship with Marinela, a young Romanian woman, Bet thinks she has found the perfect solution – one that could change Marinela’s life as well as theirs. But this means revisiting an old love affair, and confronting a long-buried secret she has kept hidden from everyone, even Jack, for many years.
Tender, moving and beautifully told, Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet is an unforgettable novel about love and loss, the joys and regrets of a long marriage, and the struggle to find a place to call home.
Jack & Bet defied my expectations. I thought it would be a tale of long lasting, fairytale-esque love with the narrative straddling the past and the present.
I was wrong – and I am very happy to be so!
Yes, Jack and Bet have been together a long time. Seventy years long. But their lives are anything but a fairytale. Their marriage has been mainly a happy one, but they have secrets from one another that have been left to ferment. Events in the novel collide to bring them bubbling to the surface, all the while their son Tommy is intent on moving them both into a care home. Enter Marinela. A chance meeting in a cafe brings her into their lives, and a lovely friendship develops between the Marinela and Bet, who sees much of herself in the younger woman.
One of the most pleasant surprises was that the narrative stayed firmly in the present. Although Jack and Bet both revisit past memories and regrets, it is all done with the benefit of hindsight. They become a couple seeped in realism, their past plumping out their characters in the present, rather than the focus being the past. The split time technique would have been wrong here; it too often implies that the past is where the bones of a character lies, and the present becomes solely reflective. Yet here are two characters, elderly and yet full of life with their story very much needing to be told. Its a continuation of a lifetime, these characters are not to be separated from the decisions of their youth – they are older, they are wiser, but they are fundamentally still those same people.
Bet, in particular is brilliant. Flawed and complex, she’s made some questionable decisions and she’s a sum of her history. Her friendship with Marinela – which is the catalyst for many of the events within the novel – has maternal undertones and some of my favourite parts of the book were when these two women came together, where warmth and mutual respect emanated from the pages.
One of the biggest themes throughout is that of home. The couple were the victims of urban redevelopment and treated abhorrently by the council when their flat building was earmarked for development. The London of this novel is grimy, its past erring on the side of dodgy and I really enjoyed this view of London. Gritty and real – and yet it’s remarked upon fondly. Things don’t have to be perfect, shiny and new to be loved and this is a sentiment that is echoed in other areas of the novel.
Jack & Bet is a wonderfully charismatic read; tender and bittersweet with great characters, a fantastic sense of place and authentic relationships. There is much to love here, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
About the Author
Sarah Butler is the acclaimed author of two previous novels, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love and Before the Fire. Her writing has been translated into fourteen languages. She is also the author of a novella, Not Home, written in conversation with people living in unsupported temporary accommodation. Sarah is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Manchester with her family