Review of Watching You, by Lisa Jewell

Watching You is the fourth novel by Lisa Jewell that I have read, one of sixteen by her count, but I feel I’ve had a fair sample to know what to expect of her, and I was not disappointed. As in The Girls in the Garden, the setting is a principal character in itself – in this case the delightful neighbourhood of Melville Heights in Bristol of brightly painted houses that overlook the harbour and each other, that last detail crucial to the plot. Our story centres on Joey Mullen, a twenty something who has returned from tending bar in Spain along with her new husband whose delightful name is Alfie Butter. They live with Joey’s brother Jack, a surgeon, and his wife Rebecca, a systems analyst. Nearby is Tom Fitzwilliam, aged 51, his teenage son Freddie, who wants to become a spy, and his obsessively homebody wife Nicola. Tom is a school headmaster (actually he’s called a ‘head teacher’ because ‘master’ these days implies that you owned slaves but I’m writing this review so we’ll use correct nomenclature) – what the English call a ‘superhead’ who specialises in fixing bog-standard schools. One of his new students is Jenna, child of divorced parents whose mum Frances is obsessed with the fear she is the target of a secret society of stalkers. Jenna and Joey both develop major crushes on Tom.

He also seems to have a somewhat dodgy past. When he was a newly starting his teaching career, one of his students committed suicide and he was under suspicion, though had a perfect alibi. Whilst on holiday in the Lake District, an apparently mad woman had accused him of being responsible for something terrible.

Lisa Jewell brings the threads of the story together beautifully. Freddie and Jenna and their teenaged friends are both quirky and very attractive. As so often with Jewell and other contemporary authors of domestic fiction – the teenagers are much more mature than most of the adult characters – because most adults today still think they are teenagers, which is certainly true of the Joey and Tom. But as the central mystery of the story goes back to an old teen crime that is still unavenged, it’s appropriate they are stuck in adolescence.

One stylistic tic continually annoyed me, though. This book had already been published in England and the version I was given by Netgalley gratis for favour of review was the American edition. Of course one expects the spellings are American, but changing the usage in the body of the text for the benefit of a naive provincial audience is irritating. ‘Officers from Avon & Somerset Police’ wouldn’t abbreviate a date as ’03/27/17’ (just when is the 27th month of the year?) And Freddie’s mum didn’t say, ‘I just took some acetaminophen’ – if you find yourself with a headache at a chemist’s in England, ask for ‘paracetamol’ instead. I’m not so sure about the ‘sneakers’ (twice) though I’d expect ‘trainers’ and I suspect the author herself wrote ‘Jenna and Frances Tripp had walked into the station this morning with their big bag of curveballs’ – I had no idea you could get baseballs already curved, much less by the bagful.

Leaving quibbles aside, readers should very much enjoy this story. Jewell has weaved a tight plot (actually knitting figures in the story) with a tricky but appropriate ending that continues to surprise up till the last sentence. Checking back through after the mystery is solved, I found just enough clues about characters’ dodgy behaviour and pasts to play fair with the reader. I may have felt that the backstory came down in a bit of a heap, but it was the backstory I should have been expecting. I place Watching You alongside The Girls in the Garden as a delightful suspense story with amusing characters.