* Prices may differ from that shown
Ella is a portrait painter, living in London, single but ok with it. She's 35 years old - a fact wedged rather unsubtly into the first page of chapter one - and her younger sister is getting married. It could be the start of something a bit samey, or it could be the start of something a bit special. Lucky for us, it's the second one, and the story develops in an intriguing and quite unusual direction.
This is Ella's story, but it's other people's too, in particular those people she is painting - her sitters (I misread the back and thought she had a number of very different sisters, with an alarming age spread and diverse nationalities). During the course of the book we meet her current commissions who range from a local politician to a chic foreigner and a reflective pensioner. They are as diverse as can be, but they fit with the story because of the premise, as it's not like they are shoe horned in, trying to be passed off as family friends. The person I really quite liked was Polly. A foot and hand model, she is Ella's best friend and though she's not in every chapter, I felt satisfied in the knowledge that she existed, and she was a welcome break from the family at times. I also liked Roy, especially because he perhaps unusually came off much better than Ella's mother.
The story weaves in the wedding drama and a stark family secret with Ella's day to day life, and it's a lovely read because not everything has to tie up at the end - some of the characters are only with us for the duration of their sitting and then neither we, nor Ella, can expect to hear from them again. I mentioned at the start that her age was rather dropped into the narrative in an unceremonious way, and there are another couple of instances similar to this. A couple of times I was a little surprised with the straight forward way in which mysteries were solved or conclusions drawn, but I quickly realised that not everything was going to be quite as it seemed and there would still be revelations to come.
Isabel Wolff was an author whose name I'd seen around, but whose books I'd never read before. I was expecting this to be a slickly written and tightly edited book - clearly not a first novel - and I was pleased with what I got. There were a few parts that went through a phase of having rather a lot of italics which was sometimes a bit unnecessary but otherwise it was a lovely read with nothing to distract you from the story itself. I liked the fact it was a British book but that London didn't keep cropping up as an extra character the way it can with some authors (probably the ones who don't live there - Wolff, however, does). I thought the artistic details were well researched and there was just the right amount of detail to shoe this and make it seem real without you feeling you were reading A Dummy's Guide To Portrait Painting.
I very much enjoyed this book and it was a welcome break from angst-ridden chick lit. Ella is a strong character who easily carries the book, and the sort of person you warm to immediately. A feel-good read, this works read lounging on a beach or lying in front of a toasty fire. Recommended.
Published by Harper
Also available on Kindle
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk