Dear Reader: a letter from Lisa Jewell
I’d been wanting to write a book set in a secondary school for a long time and in fact I originally sold the premise for this novel to my agent as Notes on a Scandal meets Room. The main character in the early draft of the novel was Theo, a maths teacher at a school in north London. One day he is introduced to a new student; precocious 13-year-old Poppy, who is demanding to be allowed to leave and continue being home-schooled by her ill father. He is startled not just by her attitude, but also by her uncanny resemblance to a girl called Ellie who he went out with as a teenager and who disappeared a week before her GCSE’s never to be seen again.
But my desire to write a book set in a secondary school was proving problematic to the plotting of my story and a few months after starting it I took the decision to cut Theo’s storyline completely and focus instead on Ellie’s mother Laurel.
Now the book became a story about a mother’s love for her daughter – her ‘favourite’ in fact (and we all know we’re not supposed to have favourites) and the pain of losing a child without any sense of closure. Laurel’s need to protect herself from the pain of her loss has led to the breakdown of her marriage to a very good man, and the disintegration of her relationship with her two adult children. She is living an isolated, regimented life when she meets Floyd Dunn in a café near her old house. Having finally received news about the fate of Ellie, she is, perhaps, ready to move on and so she accepts this charismatic stranger’s invitation to share his cake. Afterwards, they go on a couple of dates and Laurel is amazed to find herself developing feelings for this man, after so many years of thinking that she was emotionally dead.
And then, after their second date, she meets his nine-year-old daughter, Poppy – and her breath is taken away, because Poppy is the spitting image of her lost girl.
This is not a thriller in the traditional way of having some audacious, breathtaking twist that you didn’t see coming. I lay the story out fairly early on in the book. We can guess where Ellie went, who took her and who Poppy might be. The ‘thrill’ in this thriller is in finding out not who, but how and why. My editor said to me after a fairly early reading that she’d love to find out more about the ‘baddie’, so halfway through I switched the narrative abruptly to their point of view and wrote it in the first person. Getting inside the head of this dark, damaged character was energising and these chapters virtually wrote themselves.
And then we come to the ending which has made some early readers cry and has, in fact, made me cry on three separate occasions! I’d been so determined to give this book a happy ending, so scared to leave the reader feeling sad or distressed, that I’d inadvertently ruined it. It took the laser vision of my editor to see how much better this book would be with an ending that gave closure to all my characters but was still utterly heartbreaking. So, like my secondary school story line, I let go of my happy ending and the book, I think, is all the better for it.
I wrote this book in a matter of weeks on a huge wave of momentum. It’s nothing like the book I intended to write when I first sat down back in March 2016. But then none of my books ever are. It’s not a people-pleaser. It’s not slick. It doesn’t have an ingenious twist. And it certainly doesn’t have a happy ending. But it is authentic and true and a book I’m very proud of. I hope if you read it that you enjoy it. And maybe even cry a little.