Because of You by Dawn French
Published by Penguin, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐
In a lot of ways, my rating for this one feels harsh. In the hands of the right reader, this is a perfectly decent book, full of warmth and heart. The story opens with two women, Hope and Anna, giving birth on the same maternity ward. While Anna’s baby arrives safely, Hope’s is tragically stillborn. In a grief-fuelled haze, Hope snatches Anna’s baby and endeavours to raise her as her own. We then jump forward nearly 18 years, when events will transpire to bring the truth out and reunite these two families.
At its core, the novel is very much a look at grief, what it means to be a parent, and the bond between mother and child. The first half is definitely the strongest, with French really taking time to establish her main characters, making it possible for us to sympathise with all parties despite the awful moral choice that Hope ultimately makes. The writing itself is solid and I found myself flying through the story, completing it in just two sittings. There is humour throughout, as you’d expect if you’re familiar with French’s work, but it’s (mostly) pitched at a level that doesn’t detract from the more poignant emotions at play.
As the novel progresses, however, things begin to unravel. In contrast to the three main characters, all of whom I liked and felt genuinely invested in, the male supporting characters (the women’s respective partners) are all very one dimensional, to the point of feeling like caricatures: we have the terrible husband, the wonderful, selfless husband, and the comic-relief joker. After taking the time to really look at the emotional impact of events in the first half, the pace ramps up to such an extent that certain key moments felt rushed, with characters accepting huge revelations in their stride. The ending itself will also be incredibly polarising. For those not adverse to soap opera levels of melodrama and sentimentality, it may appeal, but I found it far too saccharine.
It’s to the book’s credit that there is a surprising amount of thematic nuance touched upon, with both families caught up in the story being mixed race, and Hope’s parents suffering with addiction problems, but sadly I felt none of these issues were explored with the depth or impact they could have had.
In all, this is a very readable novel that I can see really working for lovers of what would typically be categorised as contemporary women’s fiction, and it’s sure to be a big hit with book clubs. It’s impossible to separate a book from the context in which you read it, however, and so picking this up following its listing for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, my hopes were raised to expect something far more literary and original than I suspect the book was even aiming for.