This was exactly what happened to me with Gillespie & I. I can't exactly call it a 'hyped' novel, but it had entirely glowing reviews from all of my most trusted sources. It felt like people were urging me to pick it up. But it didn't feel like my usual reading fare. I tend to approach anything resembling 'historical fiction' very cautiously. It's a bit of a chunkster, which I have to admit can also make me a bit more hesitant to plunge into a novel. And despite the positive reviews, the synopses I had read gave me a very poor sense of the plot. A woman's account of her past friendship with an artist and his family - well it doesn't sound like very much actually happens, does it? Where's the action? But eventually curiosity got the better of me and I am delighted that it did! The whole time I was turning the pages I was thinking: "why, oh why didn't I read this sooner?!".
So, as I have already mentioned, in Gillespie & I the reader is made privy to the memoirs of Ms Harriet Baxter, an elderly spinster who is reflecting on her past and recounting the story of her close friendship with the struggling artist Ned Gillespie and his family. From the beginning it is made clear that Ned came to an untimely end and never knew the fame and success of several of his contemporaries. Harriet's wish is for Ned to finally get the recognition that she feels he deserved, albeit posthumously.
Harriet is one of the most wonderful characters I've encountered in a long, long time. I really missed her after putting the book down. She takes all your expectations of how a lady at that time should act and throws them out of the window. Unashamedly single, chain-smoking and with a wicked tongue that brings all the other characters to life just as vividly as Harriet herself. I particularly loved her descriptions of the indomitable Elspeth Gillespie with all her airs and graces. But it gradually becomes apparent that she might not be telling us the whole story about past events, and then a big revelation made halfway through the novel turns everything on its head. She is a deliciously unreliable narrator and it is so much fun to pick apart her memories and try to decide what is fact and what is fiction.
It's difficult to say more than that without giving away spoilers, but I hope I've conveyed just how much I loved this book. It reminded me of another recent favourite, Alys, Always - but I might even have enjoyed it a bit more than that. If you have been considering reading this but have been put off by its bulk or something else, please give it a go, I don't think you'll regret it. I've passed it straight on to family members as it's one of those books I want to recommend to everybody. The Observations by Jane Harris has now gone straight on my wishlist.