Orla is waiting for Valentine's Day with nervous anticipation. She is sure her actor boyfriend Sim, who has finally received his big break and has been working in London for the last five months, is going to propose to her via one of his characteristic, beautifully written cards. She has found it difficult being away from him for so long as, despite his pleas to join her in London, she has never committed to giving up her job and following him there. Not yet, anyway. But just as Orla opens the door to her Valentine's Day post, she receives the awful news from Sim's agent that he has died. Heartbroken and numb with shock, Orla has to decide what to do.
Receiving little comfort from Sim's proud parents, Orla decides that she must travel to London, to see what Sim's life was like before he died, and to search for his journal. He never allowed her to read it while he was alive, and she believes it is the only thing left that will allow her to hold him close. She takes the Valentine's Card, unopened - though confident of the words inside it - as her talisman. She arrives in London, meets Sim's landlady Maude, and takes up residence in his room while she looks for the missing journal.
This is Juliet Ashton's first novel but it is written with an assured voice and an originality that I found startling in a debut. It is a difficult premise, one that is weighted down with sadness, but the stages of Orla's grief are described so honestly and so beautifully, that you get swept along despite the heartbreak. The language is poetic; phrases jump off the page and become vivid images and moments that stay with you.
The characters, too, seem wholly alive. Orla with her stubbornness, her grief and her hope, Maude's no-nonsense kindness, Marek's gentleness hidden behind a strong, solid countenance. I could perfectly picture Sim's agent Reece, brash, loveable friend Juno and Sim's styled-to-the-last-millimetre costar Anthea. Even Sim, fleshed out through journal entries and flashbacks, is deliciously real, which in some ways makes it even harder to read.
The Valentine's Card had a strange effect on me. I loved reading it and was desperate to pick it up each evening, but at the same time I was reluctant to. There is such an overwhelming sadness, especially during the first half of the book, that I felt I'd struggle to continue. But I always did, and I was always glad because, with the help of her new friends and the vibrancy and grittiness of London, Orla pulls herself out of her sadness. The Valentine's Card itself gets tattier and tattier, and Orla's feelings towards it change. There are some wonderful scenes and laugh out loud moments, and I felt I was alongside Orla, feeling her relief at starting to enjoy life again.
This is not just a story about overcoming grief, it is also a love story (between several different couples) and a mystery: Where is the journal and what does it say? What did Sim actually write in The Valentine's Card and will Orla ever read it? There is certainly enough intrigue to keep you turning the pages, and some very surprising revelations along the way.
The Valentine's Card is a wonderfully written, enthralling debut novel that will pull at your heart strings and deepen your laughter lines, and one that I would highly recommend. I am already looking forward to Juliet Ashton's next novel.