I was smitten as soon as I saw that cover – my home town boasts an art deco bathing pool – and when I finally held the book in my hands and began to turn the pages I was hooked before the story even began, by two wonderful quotations from beloved authors.
“I suppose there is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, but an expansion, an interpretation of one’s self, the very meaning of one’s soul.”
“Far away in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, and try to follow where they lead.”
Louisa May Alcott
Those words capture the themes that underpin this debut novel with such eloquence.
A scene, set in 1937, finds fourteen-year-old Cecily working as a hospital cleaner. The sister of the maternity ward asks her to take the newborn baby of a dying woman outside, and to wait.
And then another scene, set in 2009, finds Cecily mourning the loss of her life’s companion, realising that the end of her life is not far away, but suddenly curious to know more about the past that Freda, her companion, had kept to herself.
That led her to the story of Ida Gaze.
Ida grew up in a small Welsh town, loving to swim, loving to spend her days at the lido. And in 1928 she announced that she was going to swim the Bristol Channel between Wales and England. Men, strong men, had tried and failed, and nobody took her seriously. But Ida had determination. She had inspiration: the American aviator, Amelia Earhart, who had landed nearby after becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. And she had support and encouragement, from her best friend, Freda.
My heart was in my mouth as Ida struggled to reach her dream.
And then a question formed – what next?
Ida wanted to go to London. Freda was a misfit in her home town, but she was reluctant to leave. In the end though the call of friendship would prove louder than the call of home.
Ida looks to build a career in journalism and Freda plans to train as a nurse. life takes them in very different directions. And their friendship in stretched. maybe it will break …
And then the story shifts, to unravel the relationship between Freda and Cecily.
The links between seemingly disparate plot strands suddenly fall into place.
Catherine Jones writes beautifully, picking out just the right details to bring her characters and their world to life. And she exercised just the right amount of restraint. She didn’t offer expanations, she simply let her characters speak, leaving space that allowed me to wonder, to interpret, to try to understand. That worked so very well.
It was her characters who made the story sing. They could so, so easily have become caricatures, women reaching for the stars in an era when they were expected to want nothing more than to become home-makers. But they didn’t. They were flawed, fallible, individual, and utterly real. they met with success and with failure, and that changed them, and their relationships.
They weren’t always sympathetic, but they were always interesting, and utterly believable.
And those wonderful themes were wrapped around them so effectively.
I found much to praise, but I also have reservations.
I am not sure that the book’s structure served the story well. It was told in two parts and I found the first, the story of Ida and Freda, much more engaging than the second, the story of Freda and Cecily.
And once I worked out how the plot must join up there was less to hold me. The story was moving, but it was also a little predictable.
I can forgive that though, when the themes are so lovely, the characters are so well drawn, and the ideas at the heart of the story are so inspired.
Real lives underpin this story, and it is a very fine tribute to them.