“With All My Love” Patricia Scanlan (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Briony, forced by childcare costs to become a stay at home mum, offers to help her mother, Valerie, move house, bringing her four-year-old daughter Katie with her. Katie and Valerie have a close relationship. Just the kind of relationship Briony wanted with her own grandmother, Tessa, particularly after her father’s sudden death when she was around Katie’s age.

Valerie had always told Briony that Tessa had wanted nothing to do with them, moving first to Dublin from their small village in Ireland and now to Spain. The discovery of a letter that had been stuffed into an old photo album, prompts Briony to decide to return home with her daughter. The letter strongly suggests Tessa did want to keep in touch. But Valerie had cut Briony off from her father’s family by hiding the letter, lying to Briony and moving away. Valerie has her reasons but knows Briony doesn’t want to hear them.

Meanwhile Tessa grieves not only the loss of her son but also the loss of her granddaughter Briony. Despite the lack of contact, Tessa still writes unsent letters to her granddaughter, still hopes that one day contact will be revived. Her husband, like Valerie’s best friend Lizzie, believes that there were faults on both sides of the relationship between Valerie and Tessa and it’s about time both of them acknowledged that and tried to move on.

Ironically, Tessa behaves as she does because her own situation was not dissimilar to Valerie’s. However, her actions cause a rift which Valerie mirrors by moving away with Briony after Briony’s father’s sudden death. This mirroring is not lost on either Lizzie or Lorcan.

The reader sees Valerie’s story in retrospect: a strict, harsh father and bullied mother combined in a determination for Valerie to leave home and become independent at the first opportunity. She meets Jeff in her final year at school and immediately dislikes his mother, thinking Tessa looks down on her and assumes she’ll distract Jeff from his college studies and future football career.

Patricia Scanlan’s characters grow from the page into fully rounded characters and are given space to tell their own stories. Despite their faults, readers find themselves hoping both Valerie and Tessa can overcome their differences and dismantle their cross-generational barriers. Their dialogue sounds natural, as if the reader is overhearing the two speak.

But “With All My Love” isn’t just a family saga and isn’t just about the relationships between mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Its scope is wider than that. It shows how all generations and family relationships are founded in their time, with Valerie’s father’s 1950s’ values clashing with his daughter’s 1980s’ outlook. There are differences between Tessa and Lorcan’s relationship, Valerie and Jeff’s, and Briony’s with her husband Finn. The men may not be in foreground, but they are not ignored or reduced to two-dimensional plot devices either. These feel like real interactions between real people.

It’s not all dramatic divisions and separated families either. There are genuine feel-good threads too: Valerie’s friendship with Lizzie, Tessa’s relationship with Lorcan, Jeff and Valerie’s transition from teenaged lovers to young adults and the development of their relationship and all mother-daughter bonds are realistic in capturing both love and frustration when parents have to let child find their own way whether that’s which toy to play with next or choices in friends and lovers.

“With All My Love” hooks readers in with what initially feels like a light, feel-good, summer read but as readers get to know the characters, they keep the reader compelled to read on. It’s easy to root for both Tessa and Valerie as readers aren’t forced to pick sides. Patricia Scanlan tackles tough issues such as teenage pregnancy and contraception, attitudes towards working mothers and intergenerational attitudes towards parental roles and social stigma, without moralising. Each character given space to show how circumstances have shaped them and how they’ve made the decisions they have. Readers are invited to share Patricia Scanlan’s characters’ lives, which makes the story come alive and feel real.

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