The scene for Emily Barr’s latest novel The First Wife is a quiet Cornish village, where Lily Button has spent the last few years as sole carer for her increasingly incapacitated grandparents. When they both die within months of each other, Lily is at a loss for what to do. Her only qualification is in elderly care – and not in a formal sense of the word qualification. Furthermore, once the cottage that she has lived in for most of her life has been sold to pay debts, Lily has almost no money left over to start living independently, let alone any life skills that would help her get by.
Luckily there is a place in the world for you if you really need help, and Lily finds herself at the local Citizens Advice Bureau, with their help she finds lodgings, and some work – as a house cleaner. This seems to be enough for a few months, and one of her favourite places to clean is the house of the local celebrity, ex-TV star, the gorgeous Harry Summer and his lovely wife Sarah. Harry and Sarah are never home when Lily cleans so it is a shock to her when they call her to help serve at their Christmas party.
Tragedy strikes shortly after, when Harry and Sarah go to Barcelona for a break and Sarah throws herself into the sea. At this point the novel really gets started with Lily showing her caring nature as she nurses Harry back from depression and encourages him to deal with his grief and move on. It won’t be a surprise to you that she cannot resist his charm, and that she contemplates moving in with him permanently, although she is certain she can feel the disapproval of Harry’s first wife (Sarah) resonating through the house.
Meanwhile, a somewhat confusing parallel story takes place with Jack who has dreams of being an English teacher in Spain. For most of the novel, I found the Jack chapters difficult to place but in the end Lily’s and Jack’s stories intertwine when Lily goes to Barcelona to try to find the true story of Sarah’s apparent suicide, and in so doing they discover hidden truths about Harry’s family that make him somewhat less charming.
Despite the interruptions from Jack, the novel is a good read, with enough interesting plot twists that you will keep turning the pages long after the lights should be out. And the punchline of Lily’s full name is too good to miss.
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