Following a whirlwind romance, Libby marries Jack - but right from the start their marriage is overshadowed by the ghost of Jack's first belated wife, Eve. Jack clams up and refuses to talk about her everytime Libby tries to ask about her. The book starts with a crash - literally! After being involved in a car accident, beauty therapist Libby has to reassess her place in the world, her ideas about beauty and her own self image - and most importantly, her relationship with her relatively new husband.
:: Spoilers below this point! ::
While recovering at home, Libby happens upon the diaries of Eve, hidden in the cellar. Unable to resist, she reads them and discovers Eve is not what she thought. Having to escape from her mother's abusive boyfriend Eve finds herself in London and on poverty row. She reluctantly becomes a stripper, or really, a lap dancer, but it spirals into prostitution, escorting and eventually ends up as the virtual slave of a very nasty pimp. Despite this, you cannot help but love Eve. She was easily the best character in this story, as as you already know she's dead from the start - it's not going to turn out well for poor Eve. All she really wants is to wear her pink dress, to be loved and respected and not to have to live in fear.
I feel I'm not being a very good reviewer, handing out 5/5 ratings for everything - I should be harsher - however, I cannot give The Woman He Loved Before anything lower. I think I loved this book even more than The Ice Cream Girls. At first the book deals with the whirlwind romance between Libby and Jack and for me that dragged a little bit, but once you get through to Eve's story, I found I could not put it down.
In the Kindle edition there were some questions for reading groups, which had also been answered by the author, Dorothy Koomson. Two interesting ones - she said her least favourite character was Jack (mine too - he's the romantic male lead, but he didn't protect Eve and he's rather useless for Libby too) - and the question about themes - there are the obvious themes in this story - love, marriage, death etc but one that wasn't mentioned was loss. I think loss - and the fact that with true loss you cannot do anything about it - you just have to find a way to live with it - is perhaps one of the most important themes in this book. All the character suffer loss - Eve loses her innocence and home when she has to escape to London, later she loses her respectability - for herself and from others - her baby, her mother, Jack once or twice, and then eventually her life. Libby loses her identity and her confidence. Jack loses Eve, his family and more than he probably even realises.
This is a wonderful book I would encourage anyone to read. Right, plunging into The Rose Petal Beach now!