The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
I don’t read much chicklit or romcom, which cuts down on my romance-adjacent reading these days since they’re among the more popular and talked-about sub-genres. But when a number of my romance friends raved about this 2019 and Janine specifically suggested it to me, I put it on hold at the library and read it when the hold came in last week. I can see why it’s on a number of best-of-year lists, because it’s quite sweet and charming at times and has a great premise.
This is the ultimate high-concept novel. The main characters meet when they share a London flat, but it’s not just any flatshare: they divide up time, not space. Tiffy is an editor of craft books who needs to get away from her controlling, abusive boyfriend and find an inexpensive place to live in London. Leon is a palliative care nurse who works nights because he needs to pay a solicitor to appeal his brother Richie’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment for armed robbery. Leon’s solution is to rent his flat in the hours he’s away at work and spend his days off with his girlfriend, Kay. Tiffy convinces herself and her worried friends that sharing the flat will work out. It’s small but comfortable and convenient, and Leon doesn’t seem like a serial killer.
The story unfolds in alternating first person POV, present-tense chapters. Tiffy and Leon communicate via post-it notes and don’t meet for the first half of the book. Tiffy is quirky and outgoing (not quite Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but uncomfortably close), and Leon is reserved and the opposite of talkative. Leon’s character is conveyed through a particular and stylized form of expression: his interior monologues are written in sentences in which pronouns and articles are omitted. For US readers of a certain age he sounds weirdly like George HW Bush at times. Linguists call Bush’s omissions of pronouns, especially “I”, left-edge deletion. Leon’s more general conversational deletion occurs throughout his written and unspoken thoughts. Tiffy, by contrast, is verbose in all her forms of communication. These authorial choices highlight their personality differences, but they also come across as stereotypically gendered and quite a few readers (on Goodreads, at least) found Leon’s sections difficult to read. On the plus side, though, the 21stC epistolary form of post-it notes back and forth were quite charming and did a good job of establishing their growing understanding of each other.
Leon, being emotionally reserved and taciturn, has no friends, although he talks regularly to Richie and has warm relationships with his hospice patients. Tiffy, being emotionally open to the point of oversharing, has strong friendships at work and outside it. Her best friends are Gert and Mo from college and Rachel at work. Each of them fulfills a stereotype and all three of them, and really all the supporting characters, are depicted almost entirely in terms of their relationship to and function for Tiffy.
Despite the high-concept framework, this is at heart a deeply conventional novel. Tiffy and Leon undergo emotional journeys whose end point is their healthy and permanent romantic relationship with each other. For romance readers there is definitely an HEA, but I would argue this is not so much a romance as a finding-oneself novel in which both the main characters find themselves, independently and through each other. Each overcomes their pasts individually, but it’s undeniable that the presence of the other gives them a goal to strive toward. The subplots about the publication of Tiffy’s author’s crochet book and Richie’s appeal are depicted primarily in terms of how they advance the main storyline. Richie almost comes to life as an independent character and I’d love to see him in a sequel with Rachel, although I’d like more actual book around them, if you know what I mean. The ways in which the crochet book takes off in social media and Richie’s appeal unfolds rely on a series of coincidences and low-probability events, but we’re in a fantasy world so you just have to go with it.
I have a high tolerance for certain types of women’s fiction and a low tolerance for all kinds of chick lit, but even I was charmed at times. Nevertheless, those times were not enough for me to be swept up in the book. Tiffy was so needy. Even after she and Leon finally have a wonderful night together, she’s on the phone telling her friends about it. It felt like I was reading about a teenage girl’s first big date. Gerty, the most obviously feminist character, is brusque and in many ways unlikable even though she’s very very good at her demanding and prestigious profession. Rachel spends hours on her hair, makeup, and wardrobe, and chats up bartenders when she and Tiffy go out and drink too much. Leon’s girlfriend, Kay, sets up the initial draconian terms of the flatshare and then fades away when she becomes surplus to the plot. On the other hand, Tiffy’s ex Justin, who remains crucial to the story for far longer, metamorphoses from a garden-variety horrible ex-boyfriend to something far more dangerous and OTT, and his scenes don’t mesh well at all with the bright and breezy theme of so much of the novel (neither do Richie’s but that’s a whole different complaint). I commend the author for having Tiffy in therapy to address the effects of Justin’s abuse, but I think it would have taken more than fifteen sessions.
Overall, the novel felt like a pastiche of other novels and movies. The drinking scenes and Leon’s form of expression are reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ Diary. There’s a balcony-and-drainpipe scene straight out of Pretty Woman except that it lacks the essential features that made the one in the movie so effective. And so on.
I’m clearly an outlier here. Readers have absolutely loved The Flatshare, so my recommendation is that if you like epistolary novels, give the sample a try. If Tiffy appeals to you and Leon’s mode of expression doesn’t bother you, there’s a lot to enjoy and the flaws I saw won’t loom nearly as large. I’m not sorry I read it, because it’s nice to occasionally read an It Book and know what people are talking about. But beyond the initial hook I didn’t find this all that fresh and original.