Ever since being battered in the heart by ‘Goodnight, Beautiful’, I’ve always taken the opportunity to pick up a Dorothy Koomson when I can. ‘The Woman He Loved Before’ is the story of Libby, Jack and Eve – no, not a typical love triangle, as Eve has passed away long before the novel picks up on Jack and Libby, and their separate struggles to get over Eve…
Koomson is an emotional investment; you know when you dive in that you’re going to be pulled all over the place figuring out who these characters are, how you feel about them, and understanding how they’ve become who they are. ‘The Woman’ is no different; it was never going to be just a simple story of learning to move on.
Because, for starters, we learn about the tragedy of Eve. Eve, victim of abuse, recession, more abuse, and when she finally finds love it’s swiftly followed by revelation and tragedy. Her diaries were, by far, my favourite bit of the book: particularly as someone who’s had a good and reasonably sheltered life, comprehending the choices Eve is almost forced to make is incredibly difficult but compellingly written about to help you understand her turmoil. You’re rooting for her the whole way, whilst secretly knowing there’s a dark cloud over every decision she makes; never is this more obvious than when she accepts ‘Caesar’s’ generous offer…
Libby aligns with a lot of Koomson’s female protagonist; she’s clear about who she is and doesn’t need anyone to help her figure that out. What she needs is help to figure out how to fit the woman she is around the people she encounters. Her pride, her horror, her fear – the strength of Libby’s character is tested in so many ways by the ferocity and weakness of others. She’s a character worthy of knowing and exploring, and in my mind a fitting finder for Eve’s diaries, providing a viewing glass similar to our own when going through the diaries.
Then there’s Jack: hmm. Here’s a man who should have known better, at least in his second marriage. His sweet naivety with Eve is heartbreaking to watch when you know what’s coming, and makes him all the more endearing. No, it’s his relationship with Libby that makes me raise an eyebrow at him. A man who’s afraid of honesty when he saw what dishonesty cost him before? A man who is afraid of his feelings after learning how short life can be? And, thus, a man not willing to battle for what he loves? I reiterate: Jack, it’s a big hmmm from me.
Perhaps it’s a male thing in this book, because Caesar (spoiler alert!) is also a problem for me. Not that I doubt men like that exist, at all; quite the opposite. But, the transition bothered me, between him and Hector. I know this is supposed to be part of the ‘wow’ of how intense his act has been, but still…there’s a realism missing, there’s nothing picked up on when we first meet Hector that he has this capacity for evil, so it almost comes across as farcical. And without spoiling too much, like another book I’ve read recently, his ending is…convenient. There’s nothing to say it couldn’t happen, but equally after the climax of Eve’s gripping diaries and Libby’s realisations…it just seems a little too simple.
However, on the whole this is a gripping book and one I would thoroughly recommend to see you through the lockdown bedtime reading – although, be warned, by the time I got to the final set of diary entries I didn’t stop reading until the book had finished, which left me somewhere near midnight!