Summer reads too often get sidelined in book recommendation discussions. Beach reads, light romances, books with bright coloured covers and a cursive font for the title – they’re a significant part of the book market and for good reason: they’re a fun time and an easy read.
Retreat to the Spanish Sun is a delightful summery novel. It’s part cosy tea-time mystery, part Eat, Pray, Love, with a splash of enemies to lovers romance. Yet what makes Jo Thomas’ novel stand out is its exploration of friendship and the evocative descriptions of food.
Eliza Bytheway is a mother of three whose grown up children have left home, and then all seem to suddenly return. Divorced from a man who was and is an absent father, she is the heart and home for her family. But she now wants to discover who she could be, if she could think of herself as more than a parent. To escape the rowdy home full of kids, who turn to their mother to fix every problem, no matter how minor, she takes a job as a housesitter for a country property in Spain. She plans to work on the final essay for her online course, which she hopes will launch her into her new stage of life.
Rather than peace and quiet though, Eliza discovers a town that seems to be sinking into stagnation. She meets a group of emigrated women from the UK who are ostensibly trying to learn Spanish, but who don’t have a teacher, at a local bar run by a man trying to reinvent himself as a Spaniard, mostly by renaming himself Juan – which is a bit…iffy.
Among these women, all of whom are separated from their husbands for different reasons – some are divorced, others abandoned, others drifting apart due to a mutual feeling of rudderlessness –Eliza finds unexpected kinship. She relates to these women, who share her experience of uncertainty at this stage in life. She wants more, she wants better, but can’t quite pin down what that will look like.
Against the backdrop of navigating this rural town, ruled by the men who have elevated themselves by shutting out the women and foreigners from their gastronomic society, Eliza uncovers a conspiracy involving the Iberico pigs that the owner of the house she is staying at keeps. Despite herself, she learns to revel in learning to look after the pigs, discovering more about the local women producers, who don’t seem to be getting any recognition, and undertakes a daring heist. Yes, really. And it involves a sort-of car chase…
Whilst learning about the Ibercio pigs and settling into the Spanish lifestyle, Eliza revels in trying cheeses, olives, a variety of tapas, as well as a selection of local beverages. The descriptions have a revelry to them, a genuine feeling of adoration for the wonder of food and flavour. There are joys to every dish, and in particular to enjoying the local food of a place. Even if you’ve never enjoyed a Spanish omelette in Spain, you can imagine it when reading.
Perhaps this book might not appeal to readers with an extensive experience of travel and who have their own take on what Brits abroad should be, what they should do and enjoy. But this book isn’t for those people. Like the superior acting food society in the book, some people will miss out on this fun story, which celebrates Spanish cuisine and takes an honest look at older women who find themselves pivoting into a new era.
Whether you’re trying to stay cool in a heatwave, lying on a beach abroad, or just dreaming of a summer adventure, you’ll enjoy Retreat to the Spanish Sun for exactly what it is: a sweet and simple sun-baked adventure.
Retreat to the Spanish Sun was published by Penguin on 23 June 2022