Title: Wish You Were Here
Author: Catherine Alliott
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 26 February 2015
Rating: 3 out of 5
Catherine Alliott is one of England’s most well-known writers of women’s fiction, having published 14 novels since her first, The Old Girl’s Network, in 1994. I should start by saying that I think Alliott is a terrific writer and I have been a fan of her work since reading that first novel in my mid-teens. I have always found her writing to be easy-to-read, humorous and thoroughly entertaining. Whilst I have naturally enjoyed some of her books more than others, you can always guarantee that reading any one of Alliott’s books will be an enjoyable experience.
I was first attracted to Wish You Were Here because of the appealing summery cover. The book follows the Murray-Brown family on their annual summer holiday. They usually spend a month with surgeon James’ father and sisters at their secluded estate in the Scottish Highlands. However, a chance encounter with famous opera singer Camille leads to the family spending their month vacation in a beautiful chateau in the French countryside.
Flora, James and their two teenage daughters, Tara and Amelia, set forth on their holiday, however Flora quickly realises that it is not going to be a quiet family getaway when they are joined by the girls’ boyfriends, Flora’s best friend Lizzie, James’ father and two sisters, Rachel and Sally, Flora’s mother and new partner and, finally, a figure from Flora’s past. As they all descend on the beautiful house expecting a month of sun, food and luxury, things start to go somewhat array. Between policing her daughter’s sex lives, worrying about their overly-friendly host’s intentions towards her husband, offending the staff/host’s family and an unwelcome blast from the past, Flora’s holiday becomes less like heaven and more like hell!
It took a while for me to warm to Flora. Whilst she is ultimately a good person, she spends a lot of time wallowing in her own misfortune. She has a beautiful family, great friends and a good standard of living, yet she does not seem to fully appreciate what she has. She feels somewhat taken for granted, she has spent so many years trying to make the perfect life for her and her family yet she feels that almost they look down on her. I also get the impression that she has entered an ‘itchy feet’ period in her life where she can see other people moving onwards with their lives, yet feels at a standstill herself. She is a restaurant reviewer, eating out at the best restaurants and seeing her words in print yet she has lost her love for the job. They are trying desperately to maintain their middle class existence, however they have nothing on the horizon to look forward to. In some moments I felt a lot of sympathy for Flora, yet in other moments I felt a huge sense of frustration and longed to remind her that if she wanted things to change, it was up to her to make that happen. Alliott has managed to combine Flora’s mid-life problems with a dollop of humour which makes the storyline much more palatable.
The supporting characters really are an assortment of people, some odd and interesting and some not so unusual, resulting in some additional subplots, which added to the story. Even the household staff come with their own mystery to be unravelled. However, I felt that I never really gets an insight into the supporting cast’s thoughts and feelings, so they remain somewhat one-dimensional. The story really is all about Flora and, to a lesser degree, her husband James, as they confront the problems in their marriage and decide whether or not they have a future together as a family.
Whilst I did not immediately love any of the characters in the book, I think this added an element of realism. They are none of them perfect and they contain all of those flaws that we see in everyday life. The teenage girls, Tara and Amelia, were probably my favourite characters, sometimes seeming so much more grown-up than the bickering adults!
There was one section of the book that I felt to be somewhat unnecessary and that was the incident between Flora and the villa’s handyman (and Camille’s brother in law) Michel. Flora’s reaction to the incident seemed incredibly over-the-top and her family’s lack of sympathy seemed similarly unbelievable. I think this subplot did not particularly add to the story, although it did slightly set the scene for the unravelling of a mystery later in the book.
The progress of the plotline was a bit up and down. Some chapters seemed a bit slow, possibly due to the amount of descriptive language, whilst other chapters had a bit more ‘oomph’ to them, moving the plot forwards. Overall, I felt that something big needed to happen to shake things up a bit, however this only really happened in the last few chapters when secrets are revealed and loose ends neatly tied up. In some ways it felt as though not much had happened within the book, however that the story ends with the main characters having come a long way in terms of their feelings towards each other.
The location for the story, in the French countryside, is wonderful. The book contains descriptions of the area, markets, quaint towns, the food and the way of life, all of which made me long to revisit France and rediscover those smells and tastes. Simply delicious!
Whilst I did enjoy Wish You Were Here, it was not one of my favourite of Alliott’s books. For me, it needed a bit more action/excitement in the early stages to really grab my interest. However, as always with Alliott’s books, I do like that she seems able to subtly capture the humour in everyday situations. Wish You Were Here is a tale of overcoming your fears and following your dreams rather than settling for a mediocre normality. This was an engaging read, containing real-life issues, interesting characters, a beautiful setting and some gentle humour, all of which make the book ideal for an easy, summery holiday read.
About the Author
Best-selling author Catherine writes her books in the garden or on the sofa at her home in a rural spot on the Herts/Bucks border.
Catherine shares her home with her family and a menagerie of horses, sheep, chickens and dogs, which at the last count totalled eighty seven beating hearts, (including her husband). Some of her household have walk-on parts in her novels, but only the chickens would probably recognise themselves.