Reviewed by Victoria
I don’t know about you, but the past month of UK politics has given me a pressing need to bury my head in soothing and reassuring fiction. Books do a fantastic job of challenging our beliefs and broadening our minds. But they also offer the essential service of happy escapism, taking our minds on holiday to locations where no problem is insurmountable, and everything will work out just fine in the end.
Adèle Geras is a writer of terrific variety who works in so many different modes. I’ve read books by her that include historical scenes from the WW2 Kindertransport, and searing love stories from the Greek myths. But her latest novel is a truly delightful feel-good story set in contemporary London and its surrounding areas, concerning that ever-alluring topic of moving house. If you are even mildly addicted to the many property shows on television, this book is going to be a must.
Iris Atkins is an estate agent at Robinson & Tyler, an ordinary firm run by the avuncular if slightly annoying Bruce (think of a more tolerable David Brent). Iris loves her job, and she thinks she may even be a bit of a ‘fairy godmother’ when it comes to finding the right location for her clients.
Many people thought they knew what they wanted, but very few understood which of the houses they were looking at was the right one for them. They had only a dim idea of what would suit them best, and sometimes they were seriously misguided.
Iris can’t help but become involved in her clients’ lives, but only because she wants the best for them, in the knowledge that houses are more than just places to live. When the novel opens, Iris has some issues of her own. Her relationship with the controlling Neil has come to an end, and this means a rather ignominious retreat to her mother’s house.
Thankfully, there’s a enough going on at work to keep her distracted. Widower Aiden Church has realised that the time has come to give up the large and lovely cottage he lived in with his wife, Grace. But Aiden isn’t especially comfortable with change and he certainly has no idea what kind of situation would suit him best. Divorcee Vina has also decided it’s time to move on with her life. It’s been ten years since her husband, Geoff, left her (though worryingly, he seems keen to come back) and her children have long grown and flown the nest. Then there’s Josie, who lives in a spectacular flat in central London with her husband and young son. The flat is her husband’s special project, but Josie knows it isn’t in the least suitable for a growing child who longs for a dog. She wants to get out of London and into the countryside, despite her husband’s resistance to the whole idea.
In chapters that alternate between the perspectives of Iris and her three clients, Adele Geras weaves a chain of houses and relationships. Aiden loves Josie’s flat, but can’t find the money to buy it. Josie loves Aiden’s house, but when the sale of her flat falls through, it looks like her dreams of a move to the country will never be realised. And then Aiden and Vina begin to wonder if they perhaps love each other, and the fears and ecstasies of this unexpected second chance for them both need to be carefully negotiated. As for Iris, will she be able to escape the persistent attentions of Neil, who she knows is bad for her, and make headway with the rather charming American artist, Patrick Taylor, for whom she is trying to find the right kind of ‘walls’?
In this kind of novel, so much depends on the style. What’s especially lovely about Geras’s writing is the intelligent and tenderhearted humour. I have a friend who swears that the best books are those in which you know that the writer loves their characters, and this is absolutely true for Love, or Nearest Offer. Even the secondary characters get the kind of generous moment in the limelight that can’t fail to make a reader smile. Take, for instance, this classic moment from the book which introduces us to Georgiana, the knitwear designer who employs Vina freelance to make up her designs:
George’s eyes lit up. She was plump and small, and wore her bright scarlet hair in a messy chignon at the nape of her neck. Vina had looked her up on Wikipedia and been surprised to find how old she was – very nearly eighty-four. She had been, in her younger days, what she called a proper redhead, but when grey had appeared, she was having none of it. She leaned forward now and her necklaces (she wore about six at the same time which rattled and clanked as she walked. A necklace as a statement? she used to say. You must be kidding. I wear whole paragraphs of necklaces!) made their usual noises.
There is so much in this novel to delight and entertain and move the reader. It’s classic storytelling: reassuring and undemanding; you can just sit back and let it happen to you, but it’s also deftly plotted and insightful, especially about the grief of losing a life partner. Plus, you get to go around other people’s houses, even if they are imaginary. If you want reliable comfort fiction this summer, and a bit of cheering up, I warmly recommend this novel to you.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Adèle Geras, Love, or Nearest Offer (Quercus, 2016). 978-1784298517, 384 pp., hardback.
Adèle has written an article about this novel which can be read here in our BookBuzz section.
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