It’s an absolute delight today to be joining the blog tour and sharing my review of The Old Girls’ Network by Judy Leigh: published on 16th June by Boldwood Books, it’s available now as an ebook (free via Kindle Unlimited), in paperback and as an audiobook. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
It’s not very often that I finish a book and immediately download the two books I quite inexplicably overlooked – I so loved Judy’s A Grand Old Time (you’ll find my review here), and I can’t believe I haven’t returned to her writing rather sooner. In fact, I’d really like to hug her (it’s OK, I know it’s not allowed…) – it’s SO difficult to find books focused on older characters, something I always enjoy so much and frequently search for, and this book was (once again) absolutely everything I hoped it would be.
Let’s take a closer look…
Is it ever too late to change…
After a health scare, 77 year-old spinster Barbara goes to convalesce in the sleepy Somerset village of Winsleigh Green with her sister Pauline, who is now a widow. The sisters are like chalk and cheese – Barbara, outspoken and aloof and Pauline, good natured and homely – so it’s not long before the tension starts to rise.
But when Pauline accidentally knocks down a vagrant who goes by the name of Bisto Mulligan, the ladies find themselves with another houseguest. As he recovers, it becomes apparent that Bisto is not who he first seemed, and as the sisters get to know the kind and courageous man he really is, it’s clear Bisto has the potential to change both of their lives.
As the spring turns to summer, and Winsleigh Green comes to life, can the three friends make the changes they need to, to embrace fresh starts, new loves, new lives and new horizons. Or do old habits die too hard?
Funny, joyful and with a spring in its step that reminds you to live every day like it’s your last. Judy Leigh has once again written the perfect feel-good novel for all fans of Dawn French, Dee MacDonald and Cathy Hopkins.
You know the way you can sometimes look at two people and wonder how on earth they can be from the same family? Well, that’s how it is with Barbara and Pauline. Barbara’s stiff and buttoned up, speaks her mind and doesn’t much thought to the impact, all sharp edges and disapproval – some might even say an archetypal spinster. And then there’s Pauline – soft around the edges, warm and eager to please, taking every opportunity for involvement in her local community, an all-round lovely lady. When Barbara invites herself to stay, you can tell it’s not going to go well: you watch with mounting horror as she becomes increasingly obnoxious, with Pauline constantly trying to take the path of least resistance and calm the waters. Can you imagine what it’s like to be in your 70s and your sister still calls you “Pud”? I think I’d have packed Barbara’s bags for her…
When Pauline knocks down Bisto as he leaves the village pub (there’s rather a recurring theme there) – to all appearances, an elderly and rather smelly vagrant – her soft heart makes her offer him a home for a while. You can imagine what Barbara thinks of that – particularly when he gets sozzled on the first night and relieves himself in next door’s rose bushes. But these are three characters about to go on a bit of a journey, and I loved every twist and turn along the way – Bisto might just not be quite what he seems, his secrets are slowly uncovered, and his presence changes everyone whose lives he touches.
The three main characters are superb – their every interaction, the dialogue quite perfectly done, the insights as their new experiences begin to shape them into something different. And the set pieces – the welly throwing competition, the inter-village cricket match (complete with jugs of Pimms), the Shakespearean production on the village green – are just wonderful. Bisto invariably becomes everyone’s focus for attention before returning to the nearest beer tent, Pauline smiles indulgently, and Barbara bristles with embarrassment and indignation. The humour is ever present, and for my tastes perfectly judged – and then there’s that touch of poignancy too, the emotional note sometimes taking you by surprise. These are characters that you grow to love through the book’s course – and yes, I’ll even include Barbara in that statement.
But if the main characters are magnificent, and considerably more complex than you might expect, the author also gives them a wonderfully drawn community to interact with. I think I’d like to live in Winsley Green, so vividly described – by the end of this book, I felt as competitive about neighbouring Milton Rogus as the residents did. Every single person in the village is fully rounded, alive on the page, however peripheral they might be – the bouncy female vicar, the surly farmer, the standoffish new neighbours, the eccentric novelist writing her bodice-rippers, the two old ladies at war all their lives because of an incident in their youth, the Greek god of a window cleaner who becomes an object of lust to hairdresser Dizzy… quite wonderfully done. Every small detail was enchanting – even the antics of murderous Derek and Clive (lest you worry, they’re cats), punctuating the story with their most recent corpses. At one point, Barbara is heard to say “It was never like this in Country Life magazine” – but it’s certainly considerably more fun.
I know I’m older than the average reader, and I guess I was fairly guaranteed to enjoy this book – and I already knew I loved Judy Leigh’s wonderful writing. But if you’re not yet past your prime (and how wrong is that expression?), don’t be put off for an instant – the story’s simply wonderful, the theme of second chances will resonate whatever your age, there’s something for everyone among the characters, and I do defy anyone not to have a tear in their eye at the perfect ending. And I guarantee you’ll laugh – if you share my sense of humour, you’ll laugh a lot, as you wipe away a little tear. I adored this book – don’t miss it, whatever you do.
About the author
Judy Leigh is the bestselling author of Five French Hens, A Grand Old Time and The Age of Misadventure and the doyenne of the ‘it’s never too late’ genre of women’s fiction. She has lived all over the UK from Liverpool to Cornwall, but currently resides in Somerset.