Among Friends (by Alexandra Raife)

I’m very much enjoying re-reading Alexandra Raife’s novels, which I first read fifteen or more years ago. The one I have just finished is ‘Among Friends’. It’s about a woman called Louise, who is in her early thirties and trying to move forward after a devastating bereavement, two years earlier.

Louise decides that as her main experience in life involves caring for families, and (recently) for an elderly lady, she will join an agency that places short-term staff in service jobs. However, due to her personal background, she does not want to look after children, or even have any children in households where she’s placed.

This novel is the fifth in the author’s ‘Perthshire’ cycle, and, as with so many of her books, picks up on characters who featured in earlier novels. Cass, who was the main protagonist in ‘The Wedding Gift’, is the head and driving force of the employment agency whom Louise joins. Cass finds herself quite drawn to Louise, realising she’s a strong and very able person, but it takes awhile for her to learn exactly what happened in her past.

We follow Louise through her first four assignments: working for two decidedly cantankerous people, interspersed with much pleasanter environments. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose is for her stay with Aidan, a former actor who is very gregarous and touchy-feely, and whose sister Erica lives the life of a traveller, in a caravan.

However, her other more enjoyable assignment, at a house called Fallan, is the focus of much of the story as it progresses. Here she meets the disorganised (and promiscuous) Abby, the hard-working and often grumpy owner Hugh, and revolutionises the unhygienically dirty and disorganised kitchen area which has seen a series of unsatisfactory cooks. Hugh travels widely for his work, but brings parties back to Fallan either for business or for shooting game on his property. When he entertains, he needs extensive and high quality food, and Louise’s main role is to provide both day-to-day meals and provisions for the freezer.

It’s a journey of discovery for Louise, as she works through her limitations, and leaves her mark on almost everyone she meets. She’s a talented, loyal and honest person who seems to have few faults; she is, however, held back by the deep grief of her bereavements. In the course of the book she gradually faces some of her fears, ventures into new territory and takes on roles and challenges which she would not have thought possible.

Unusually for Raife’s books, there isn’t a romance as such; there are hints that there might be, but the ending leaves everything open. Louise begins to find some healing, and ways to move forwards, and I found it all very encouraging. In places it’s quite moving, and although it’s perhaps a tad slow to get going, I had entirely forgotten the plot and found it difficult to put down by the time I was half-way through.

‘Among Friends’ stands alone, but is all the more enjoyable for having read earlier books by this author. Other than Cass and her husband, few earlier characters are mentioned by name, and none have any significant part to play. But I like the feeling of returning to a familiar environment, and knowing that everyone I cared about in earlier novels is continuing their lives in satisfactory ways.

Definitely recommended. Not currently in print, but available in Kindle form and sometimes found second-hand in paperback.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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