Tiffy and Leon are both looking for a solution to their financial and housing difficulties. They find a creative solution: Leon (who works nights) has the flat during the day and Tiffy gets it overnight and for weekends. They share the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom and the bed, without ever having met.
The Flatshare tells the story of how they get to know each other through post-it notes, and how, despite their agreement not to meet, they start to have a profound effect on each other’s lives.
I have a soft-spot for the oft-maligned epistolary novel, and while this isn’t one strictly speaking, I really enjoyed the use of the post-it notes to create that sort of atmosphere. I think it’s a gimmick that can work extremely well for romance novels, because it places the focus squarely on communication between the two leads and their growing relationship. The Flatshare was a very fun use of the form but demonstrates an awareness of its limits, producing a charming and well-balanced story.
I really enjoyed reading The Flatshare for several reasons but one thing stood out for me in particular: the strength of the sub-plots that surrounded the main romance narrative. Almost all of the sub-plots are tropes that have been done before, and often for highly melodramatic effect. I was struck, therefore, by how subtly O’Leary brought these aspects in, justifying her use of certain tropes and earning each beat of the overarching story. I’ve noticed that contemporary romance novels often commandeer certain narratives of abuse and tragedy to shape their story, but far too often, it’s completely gratuitous. O’Leary weaves her more difficult subject matter into the novel without manipulating the reader’s emotions, and she justifies it throughout in a way that really stood out for me.
Leon’s brother is in prison due to a wrongful conviction, and this is dealt with sympathetically and without wallowing. Leon also has close relationships with two of the patients in the palliative care home at which he works: a precocious girl and an old man with a long-lost love. The introduction of these two initially raised my hackles because I really, really hate the trope of showing that the hero is secretly lovely because he has a good relationship with a quite young or very old person. And here was one of each! But actually they both helped propel the plot forward substantially and, along with Tiffy’s best friends and Leon’s brother, added to the enjoyable and much-needed supporting cast.
Tiffy’s background of a clearly manipulative relationship was also particularly interesting because of how it built up from the beginning. Her initial descriptions of herself frame her as the sort of clumsy, mawkish heroine I’m heartily sick of. But O’Leary uses this mischaracterisation to explore how Tiffy’s old relationship has manipulated even her own perception of herself, developing our view of her . Rather than building into a big “gotcha”, Tiffy’s gradual realisation of the psychological abuse she has experienced is heart-rending, but it fleshes her out as a character without resorting to shortcuts.
All the sub-plots aside however, Tiffy and Leon are just a really good central couple and the friendship that they build up over the post-it notes is charming. I particularly liked how their descriptions of the flat and each other’s belongings keep changing to illustrate the effect they start to have on each other. The flat is the setting of most of the book and their relationship is visible not only in their notes, but in their growing awareness of one another and how they move within that shared space. The growing attraction therefore feels earned, and manages to be both humourous and deeply romantic. O’Leary provides both the big romantic scenes you would expect from a romance novel, but also revels in the smaller moments of how they care for each other, right from before they’ve even met: from sensitively-timed brownies left in the kitchen, right down to the changes in how they sign off their notes to each other. It’s perfectly realised in its detail, and the very best kind of cheesy.
As the great Mindy Kaling says, romances are all about ‘fakey razzle-dazzle‘, effectively qualifying as ‘a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than (our) regular human world‘. I quoted this in every essay I could at university, and I will continue to draw on it until my dying day because it reflects precisely the right attitude. Romcoms and romance novels, even contemporary ones such as this, are all about the contrived set-up and the slightly magic rules that bring two people together. The skill, therefore, lies in justifying the contrived set-up by using it to tell a compelling story of real characters, and O’Leary absolutely nails this in The Flatshare. I really, really enjoyed this novel and I’m excited to read more from her!