London, 1926: two baby girls are born just hours and miles apart. One you know as the Queen of England, but what of the other girl—the daughter of an undertaker named in her honor? Betsy Sunshine grows up surrounded by death in war-torn London, watching her community grieve for their loved ones while dealing with her own teenage troubles . . . namely her promiscuous sister Margie. As Betsy grows older we see how the country changes through her eyes, and along the way we discover the birth of a secret that threatens to tear her family apart. Sophie Duffy dazzles in her latest work of family/historical fiction. A tale which spans generations to explore the life and times of a family at the heart of their community, the story of a stoic young woman who shares a connection with her queenly counterpart in more ways than one.
I adored Sophie Duffy’s previous books, so was thrilled to have the opportunity to read Betsy and Lilibet, which sounded like and indeed proved to be an entrancing read.
It opens in 2016 with the words “I never thought I’d be old”. But there Betsy Sunshine is, nearly ninety years of age, living in a Bognor Regis care home and looking back at her life: born weighing three pounds and a bit, named after the equally brand new princess, surviving against the odds.
Betsy tells her own story and I really loved her voice. Other than her name and the day of her birth, undertaker’s daughter Betsy apparently has little in common with Princess-later-Queen Elizabeth yet their lives run in parallel and even occasionally intersect, throughwartime, feuding with a difficult younger sister, sweeping social change, Thatcherism, terrorism and complex family relationships (oh, how complex!).
Betsy’s account of her life story is interspersed with her present day narrative (I especially loved her observations about life in the care home), and quotes - I assume real ones - from her namesake and birthday-sharer Queen Elizabeth II. As family and friends gather round her, are some of Betsy’s chickens finally coming home to roost?
There are some glorious moments here - Sophie Duffy really excels at characterisation and dialogue. The conversation between Betsy and her great grandson Tom was particularly fabulous but there are many others equally memorable and quotable. I loved the ending too.
Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, Betsy and Lilibet is a captivating story of love, death and everything else. Highly recommended.