Books: Why Toon's novels are more than pageturners
The settings for Paige Toon’s love stories are more than a backdrop: thanks to research trips in her trusty camper, the locations often inspire both character and story arcs. To mark the publication of her new Yorkshire-set novel, Someone I Used to Know, the Cambridge author talks to Alex Spencer
When Paige Toon writes her romantic novels she is often overlooking beautiful scenery from the back of her campervan, Hermie. The Cambridge author has travelled all over in the 22-year-old Mercedes with her family as part of her research for the settings for her novels and it even features in one of her books. But during lockdown it has been her home office and she has reason to feel smug about the set up.
Paige says: “The van broke down so many times that eventually we retired it to the bottom of the garden and bought a brand new one. Now, Hermie has become my writing studio. I go and sit there to look across the fields and get inspiration.
“It was so funny because our next door neighbour had been building a home office for months and months and my husband just put Hermie at the end of the garden and it had electricity and a fridge, you could make a cup of tea. It worked instantly; I started writing in it immediately.
“We have a new campervan which we have driven around Europe. We went to Norway last summer and we are heading to Devon this year, but Hermie is permanently in the garden as my writing studio now.”
The camper vans have come in handy for travelling to see possible locations for Paige’s novels, as she likes to set them in beautiful places. Her new novel, Someone I Used To Know, took her to Yorkshire, where her in-laws live.
Standing at the famous Brimham Rocks, now a National Trust site, Paige was inspired to imagine the alpaca farm where her heroine grew up - and even discovered a heart-shaped pool in the rocks that plays a crucial role in the novel.
The story centres on Leah, who has returned to the farm following a family tragedy. Her parents were foster carers throughout her teens and, at 15, George was the foster brother she never asked for. But, as the angry, troubled boy struggled to come to terms with the fact his younger sister has been adopted while he was left in the care system, Leah found herself getting drawn closer to him.
Meanwhile her neighbour Theo’s wealthy family mysteriously pulled him out of boarding school and enrolled him at the local state school with Leah and George. When their worlds collide that summer, the three teenagers form a bond they believe will be unbreakable.
But in the present day it seems life has not gone to plan. Shocking news brings Leah back to Yorkshire with her baby daughter in tow. The baby’s father - Theo - isn’t with them, and George has unexpectedly returned.
The subject of fostering was something Paige felt could bring another emotional dimension to her story. She says: “I spoke to foster parents and someone who grew up with parents who fostered other children, but I didn't feel comfortable lifting stories of children from any research, so that is almost entirely my imagination.”
However, it was speaking to a barrister that gave her an idea that would be central to her book. “She told me it's so often the case that the younger siblings are put up for adoption and the older brothers and sisters are put into the care system and they become separated. So few people want to foster teenagers who are dealing with hormones and anxiety. People think younger children can be shaped a bit more.
“I just found that absolutely heartbreaking, the idea of these kids being separated from their brothers and sisters and my friend told me that when they come out of care, rather than trying to find their biological parents, often they try to find their siblings. So that's how the idea for George and his younger sister formed. I wanted to shine a light on that scenario. I found it so sad that they couldn't be kept together somehow.”
Paige also wanted to create a family with inspirational foster parents, who could inspire other people to consider the role. “If there was any chance of someone reading the book and thinking ‘That's the kind of foster parent I would want to be’ and be inspired to do it for love, that would be wonderful,” she says.
There are moments where teenage Leah feels like she’s falling for George but, as her foster brother, a relationship is out of bounds - Theo is the one she ends up marrying by the start of the book. “I call them both my beautiful broken boys,” says Paige. “From the outset it looks like Theo has it all. He lives in this amazing estate with a mansion, but he doesn't really get any care from his father and his mother has passed away.
“It's the first love triangle I have written in a long time. It was nice to toy with those emotions of forbidden love and unrequited love - it's always an emotive storyline to write.”
Recently Paige has done some branding for her books, with the tagline ‘Feel It All’. “My books are more emotional than some women’s fiction, so I wanted to get it across that if you pick up my books you will live vicariously through the characters and you will feel these emotions of love, heartache, passion and grief. In so many of my reviews, readers say how my books make them feel. So I wanted new readers to know that my books are emotional reads and impossible love stories - but still light hearted enough to read at the beach. . .”
Someone I Used to Know is out now in paperback, published by Simon & Schuster and priced £8.99
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