It’s such a pleasure today to share my review of Where We Belong by Anstey Harris – but I’ll admit it’s a review that I really meant to share considerably sooner. This wonderful book was published by Simon & Schuster on 14th May in hardback, as an ebook and as an audiobook: my thanks to the publishers for my advance reading copy, both the proof and the e-copy I chose to read (provided via netgalley).
Back at the beginning of March (goodness, remember bumping elbows rather than the usual hugs – and it feels like a lifetime ago!) I had the great pleasure of attending the RNA Romantic Novel Awards. One of the loveliest moments of the night (and there were many) was to see Anstey Harris walk away with the Sapere Books Popular Romantic Fiction Award for the magnificent The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton. You’ll find my review here, where I also tell the story of the first time Anstey and I met – it was a real joy to see her again on her big night. I guess I hardly need to mention that Grace was one of my 2019 Books of the Year (I think Richard and Judy rather liked it too…) – and I can confidently predict that she’ll be featuring in this year’s list too…
I read this book at the end of April, and planned to share a review on publication day – and then hit that wall that I know others did too in these strange times, when I just couldn’t string words together in the way I wanted to. I’ve been back in my stride for a while, and have sat at the keyboard numerous times to put together the review I wanted to write – and still those words wouldn’t come. So I decided I’d read the book again, and (if that were possible…) loved it even more than I did the first time – so now I’ll try that review again.
One family learning to love again.
Cate Morris and her son, Leo, are homeless, adrift. They’ve packed up the boxes from their London home, said goodbye to friends and colleagues, and now they are on their way to ‘Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World – to stay just for the summer. Cate doesn’t want to be there, in Richard’s family home without Richard to guide her any more. And she knows for sure that Araminta, the retainer of the collection of dusty objects and stuffed animals, has taken against them. But they have nowhere else to go. They have to make the best of it.
But Richard hasn’t told Cate the truth about his family’s history. And something about the house starts to work its way under her skin.
Can she really walk away, once she knows the truth?
When you love a book this much, it can be really difficult to sift through your thoughts and emotions to explain quite why it had such a profound impact. I was inclined to start by telling the story – but beyond telling you that the book sees Cate and son Leo leaving their former life behind and moving to her husband’s childhood home of Hatters, not sure what lies in wait and whether they’ll find happiness there, I wouldn’t know quite where to start. The whole story is laced with secrets slowly revealed, a series of discoveries – and little is quite what it seems.
The author is a natural storyteller, and her writing is exquisite – every word carefully chosen, the emotional impact exceptional. The book’s sense of place is unlike anything I’ve ever come across before – a really unusual backdrop (and it’s far more than that) in the museum itself, its detail fascinating and so wonderfully drawn, but also the wider focus to taking in the house’s grounds and the surrounding community. And that wider focus introduces other characters, every one complex and layered and playing their part in Cate and Leo’s story. And then there’s the relationship with Araminta, the house’s elderly retainer who makes it amply clear that their presence is unwelcome – but it’s a relationship that slowly builds, as she’s won over by Leo (as most people understandably are) and they unite in their attempts to secure the museum’s survival.
This is a story that you become entirely immersed in – it consumes you as you read, and it’s impossible not to think about it when you’re forced to set it aside. It overflows with love, every setback breaking your heart, every moment of joy making it sing. The many secrets, the way the story twists and turns and dips into their former lives, the moments of drama and despair that tear you apart – you live every single moment. The author’s emotional touch is flawless – the love (so much love…), grief and loss and the anger that comes with it, the tentative steps to recovery, the support of others, the curtain slowly drawn aside as the truths emerge. I cried many times while I read, but there was also so much that made me smile – and the book’s ending is glorious, heartbreaking and uplifting, tragic and hopeful, and absolutely perfect.
You’ll find longer and more detailed reviews, but I think you’ll struggle to find a reader who loved this book more than I did. If it’s not yet on your “must read” list, you really should put that right. Breathtakingly beautiful, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.
About the author
Anstey Harris is based by the seaside in south-east England where she lives with her violinmaker husband and two dogs. She teaches creative writing in the community, local schools, and as an associate lecturer for Christchurch University in Canterbury.
Anstey writes about the things that make people tick, the things that bind us and the things that can rip us apart. In 2015, she won the H G Wells Short Story Prize for her story, Ruby. In novels, Anstey tries to celebrate uplifting ideas and prove that life is good and that happiness is available to everyone once we work out where to look (usually inside ourselves). Her short stories tend not to end quite so well…
Things that interest Anstey include her children and granddaughter, green issues and conservation, adoption and adoption reunion (she is an adopted child, born in an unmarried mothers’ home in Liverpool in 1965), stepfamilies, dogs, and food. Always food. She would love to be on Masterchef but would never recover from the humiliation if she got sent home in the first round.