A review by Nalini Haynes
Someone I Used To Know centers Leah, whose parents foster troubled teenagers and, when necessary, some gorgeous little children too. Two such children are with the extended family, including two other fostered teenagers, when George arrives. Desperate for a placement, social services overloads the family. George must sleep in the study.
On George’s first day of school, wealthy boy Theo also boards the school bus. Expelled from yet another elite expensive school, Theo now attends the local high school.
Both are in Leah’s class.
Years later, Leah is a single mom clinging to Theo’s child after Mistakes Were Made. George comes back into Leah’s life, throwing her into emotional turmoil.
Someone I Used To Know is one of the deepest, grittiest, most beautiful romances I’ve had the privilege to read. Feel free to grab the book right now but, for those interested in some of the social issues expertly interwoven into this story, read on.
Several issues are interwoven into the story, essential to the plot and characters. These include drink driving, fostering and the foster care system, trauma, forms of therapy and connection with the community. Listing them like that makes this book sound harrowing. While some elements are confronting, Toon weaves love and joy into the story. This is, after all, a romance.
Fostering and the foster care system
While growing up, Leah lives with a stream of foster children. For her parents, fostering is a vocation. Sometimes Leah feels overlooked but, overall, she has learnt empathy. This doesn’t make the dramas any easier to endure.
Foster kids suffer trauma and neglect before entering the foster care system, which can then aggravate their wounds. Toon sensitively incorporates glimpses into this reality while furthering her story and developing her characters. The narrative never lags.
Trauma and forms of therapy
All the foster kids living with Leah at the time of the story have experienced trauma. They are progressing along the path to recovery but all are at different stages. Consistent loving care helps significantly.
Leah’s family owns an alpaca farm and several angora rabbits. These creatures and their fleeces and wool provide a source of therapy for the foster kids. We watch George and Theo meet the alpacas and bunnies, and learn to pluck the rabbits’ wool. Leah’s parents teach their foster children to knit. The kids’ knitted garments sell at the market, with proceeds going to the kids. This works on so many levels.
Someone I Used To Know is fairly optimistic as we mostly see success stories. It’s a rare author who can take this topic and make it enjoyable. Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Guardian Angel’s Journal was a darker version of this story; I absolutely love that story too but Journal made me cry buckets. Toon writing these issues so gently is impressive.
Connection with the community
The importance of connection with the community emerges in various ways throughout Someone I Used To Know. Much-needed support given to foster carers, changing family dynamics, grief after Leah’s dad dies, Leah’s mom seeking new ways to connect with the community after retiring from fostering and more.
Each of the foster children who were later successful in life found ways to connect with the community, working constructively. I won’t give details because spoilers.
How do I love Someone I Used To Know? Let me count the ways… Actually, I’ll stop here or I’ll spoil the story. I’ll also stop massacring Elizabeth Barrett-Browning with my misquotes.
Toon weaves a story from varied threads, with even the coarsest, lest palatable subject matter imbuing this romance with beauty. I highly recommend this novel.
If you love Paige Toon’s books you’ll also love Marian Keyes. I’ve reviewed one of Keyes’s books here but my absolute favorites are Rachel’s Holiday and Anybody Out There?
On 17 June I interviewed Paige for my podcast so watch this space. Hopefully it’ll be up by Monday.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Imprint: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Format: Trade Paperback, 384 pages