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An inter-generational take on 'Trading Places'

Fiction: The Switch

Beth O'Leary

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The Switch

The Switch

The Switch

It's pretty unusual to come across a 79-year-old granny from the sticks playing a front-and-centre character in a contemporary romcom novel, but it's not unwelcome. The almost-octagenarian grandmother here is Eileen Cotton and she splits the limelight evenly in this story with her granddaughter, Leena Cotton, 30 years old and living the high life in London until she snaps, right in the middle of an important client presentation. From the outset, Leena expedites her own undoing, and career-wise it's all over for her by page 3.

"Half an hour has passed. Not an especially long time, really. You can't watch a whole episode of Buffy in that time, or… or bake a large potato. But you can totally destroy your career."

A handful of pages on, Eileen reflects on her own situation: "It's been four long months since my husband made off with the instructor from our dance class, and until this very moment I hadn't missed him once." She only misses him now because she's trying to open a jar and the lid won't give. Grandpa Wade, the snake, gets precious few words in this novel. It would seem that some men are such spectacular wastes of space they don't even warrant writing about, a sentiment which I'm sure is shared by women in their hordes.

And so, with Leena stuck in London without a job and Eileen stuck in a village in the Yorkshire Dales without a man (useless or otherwise) to tie her down, they decide to switch lives for a period of two months. The gotcha is that they also must switch phones. Eileen gets the shiny smartphone and Leena gets the two-tonne Nokia, which only does calls and texts. The phone swap will be crucial to the plot.

Leena's mother Marian also lives in the same village as Eileen and the strain begins to show very soon after Leena arrives. Leena's younger sister died of cancer less than a year beforehand. All three Cotton women are still reeling from the loss, but Marian has taken it particularly badly, more than Leena has realised. After enduring some depressive spells, Marian has now resorted to crystals for comfort - moonstone and obsidian and the like - and Leena is beyond exasperated.

Meanwhile down in London, Eileen gets into the swing of city living. She quickly embraces internet dating for older people, she's fitting right in with Leena's friends and she's busy trying to establish a social club for retirees in Shoreditch. Leena, on the other hand, feels like she's been dropped into a two-month long episode of The Vicar of Dibley, complete with Neighbourhood Watch and the May Day committee, both being virtually the same thing as they're cast with an identical dramatis personae. One of those characters is Jackson, the local schoolmaster and a gorgeous hunk. But Leena's got Ethan in London, patiently waiting for her return. At least that's what she believes.

This is Beth O'Leary's second novel, following on her debut, The Flatshare, which was published last year and has since been snapped up for the creation of a TV series. The book did very well, rushing into the fiction bestselling Top 10 in jig time, although I personally found it fairly... er... flat. This is a more substantial work.

That said, I believe Cosmopolitan's hailing of O'Leary as "the new Jojo Moyes" was a bit of a stretch. Moyes is more stylish and she's a whole lot funnier. Still, there's heart and warmth in this very English variation on the Trading Places theme.

Sunday Independent