Miss Bates loved Kate Hewitt’s A Di Sione For the Greek’s Pleasure and willingly delved into Hewitt’s women’s fic/romance incarnation in Meet Me At Willoughby Close. Meet Me has enough romance, and a likeable one at that, to satisfy a rom-reader. It contains an endearingly goofy heroine, Ellie Matthews, working at figuring out her divorced, single mum life, moving away from family and, for the first time, at 28, tackling life with eleven-year-old daughter, Abby. Ellie has a new job as an “administrative assistant” in the University of Oxford history department and new cottage in Wychwood-on-Lea, at Willoughby Close. Ellie is paired with her “boss,” a history professor she’s temporarily assigned to, the Darcy-like, upper-crust, Victorian-Era historian Oliver Venables, he of the grey-green eyes and impressive physique. Meet Me At Willoughby Close is funny and romantic. It tackles some serious subjects, with a light touch but no less profoundly: parent-child relationships, bullying, family dynamics, deadbeat dads, and class. Oh, and the joys and vagaries of pet ownership. Ellie’s dog, Marmite, is a great loping mutt whose exuberance (and wee bit of flatulence) elicit reader-giggles in every scene he snuffles into.
Meet Me‘s first half is strictly heroine POV and we get to know Ellie’s inner world well. Ellie is a loveable optimist. Though life has sent her lemons – a teen pregnancy, cheating, shiftless husband (five years an ex when the novel opens) – she always looks on the bright side; her glass is ever half-full. She’d rather live in a fantasy of how good things will and can be than dwell in misery or mundane reality. She’s no head-in-the-clouds dreamer, however, she’s too good a mum to be that. Leaving a loving, but stifling, family in Manchester, the opening scene finds Ellie white-knuckling her steering wheel as she skids her way, with Abby and all their worldly possessions, to their Willoughby Close cottage. Though sleet and dark are telling her otherwise, Ellie’s head is full of possibility: a “new start” for her and Abby will bring new friends, a sense both of belonging and independence, walks in the Cotswolds countryside, and tea at adorable shops. Thus is Ellie, ever hopeful and ever crashing straight into a reality that doesn’t quite match her fantasy. But, she picks herself right back up and embraces hope.
From Ellie’s thoughts, we also realize that Abby had a hard time of it back home. Abby is a precocious pre-teen – bookish, smart, introverted, and alienated As a self-declared “nerd,” Abby has a good idea why she was her school’s mean girls’ butt. Though she’s not cynical, or harsh, it’s delightfully obvious that Abby is the cold water of reality to Ellie’s sunny warmth. One of the novel’s delights is watching Abby thrive. She doesn’t become the social butterfly Ellie envisions, but she forges some good friendships, one definitely “out of the box” when she bonds with the eccentric elderly lady at Willoughby Manor, and Oliver’s nerdy nephew, Tobias.
We meet Oliver soon enough when he calls Ellie to demand why she’s not at her post. Ellie is a winning if hapless heroine. Turns out she didn’t get the message asking her to start on Monday etc. etc., and she goes in harried and breathless. Oliver is stiff, fastidious, and a tad stuffy – but gorgeous. Ellie can’t help but be affected and neither can Oliver, though you wouldn’t know it to see him with her. He hands her a stack of his notes and asks her to type them. Hewitt’s novel is really laugh-out-laud funny and Ellie’s introduction to her broom-closet office is one tiny example: “She felt as if she was about to be entombed.”
Ellie and Oliver are set up and work beautifully as two romance tropes: opposites-attract and cross-class. Their natures, extroverted and introverted respectively, and their wealth, education, status, and upbringing (aptly reflected in their geographic origins, Ellie’s north to Oliver’s south, also playing nicely on the Gaskell allusion; or, as Ellie notes, “a humble northern fish in swanky southern waters”), lower middle-class and posh again respectively, serve as the obstacles obstructing their HEA. Ellie is warm and loving, but lacking in confidence. Hewitt brilliantly points to the optimist’s flip-side, an aversion to conflict or confrontation. When things come to a head, Ellie runs from Oliver, afraid of rejection and/or overwhelmed by self-doubt, especially in light of the differences in their status. Oliver, in turn, as an introvert, doesn’t find talking and being with Ellie all that easy. He always feels awkward and often behaves, as all introverts admit when pressed, in gauchely hurtful ways. With a family that is all “stiff upper lip” and emotionally closed-off, he bottles up his affection and attraction and appears cold and/or indifferent.
Despite these obstacles of nature, nurture, and class, Hewitt shows us how two people, who albeit share an attraction, become friends. Ellie and Oliver are good sorts. They care about others and that extends to each other. They have empathy, humour, and are capable of forgiveness and understanding. They have awkward dates, but can laugh about them; go on a Cornish holiday with a farting dog, two tweens, and Oliver’s morose, G&T-drinking sister, Jemima, and still have a good time walking Marmite and playing board games. They share what frightens them and how their families and life circumstances made them who they are. They mess up big-time because they don’t talk when they should.
Hewitt has a light touch with the love scenes; indeed, Meet Me doesn’t have any. But Ellie and Oliver are still sexy as heck: they look at each other, notice those physical details that say I want you, and share delightful canoodling. What keeps them apart makes sense and what brings them together makes better sense. Miss Bates could’ve done without the inane epilogue and the Ellie/Oliver self-doubts grew a tad wearisome, but Meet Me was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Miss Bates can see that Hewitt is now, officially, on her favourites list.
With Miss Austen, stalward reading companion, Miss Bates says of Meet Me At Willoughby Close: “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Kate Hewitt’s Meet Me At Willoughby Close is published by Tule Publishing. It was released in January 2017 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Tule Publishing, via Netgalley.