Written by Jenny Colgan
Last weekend I was out and about, trying to finish Christmas shopping. It was a dreary, rainy afternoon – perfect to cozy up with a good book. Unfortunately, I’m slogging my way through a nonfiction book that I want to better than it is. Not the sort of thing I wanted at all. My last stop of the day was the local wine shop, so I swung into the library (conveniently located across the street), grabbed a book or four, and then continued across the street where I enjoyed a glass of wine with the start of a new book.
What It’s About
The Café by the Sea follows Flora, a paralegal in London, as her job sends her back to her home on the fictional island of Mure, off the Scottish coast. Though Mure is the last place on earth that she wants to go, Flora does her duty: catering to the whims of a major client and her high-flyer boss, meeting back up with old friends, new friends, and family, and trying to cope with her ghosts.
This is the sort of book that I think I want during the holidays or stressful times or right after I’ve finished something dense and “important”. You know, frothy and light and requiring zero work. Then I get into the book and get bored because it’s built around exactly the same plotline or character as every other book in the genre. The story goes something like: girl has crush on unsuitable guy, girl returns home to a magical place, girl deals with her past and her current unrealistic expectations, girl settles on the right guy, unsuitable guy has his comeuppance, all good guys live happily ever after. This is why I rarely watch romantic comedies.
Colgan has delivered that light, rom-com feel with this book. The characters are engaging, Mure is a beautiful, magical place. The thing is, though, that this book is actually so much more. There’s a depth that underlies the relationships and the history. Flora does dumb things, but she does them in the way your best friend did when she had that crazy idea and you had to talk to her about it every stinking day for weeks until she finally moved on and now you laugh about it. Unlike a rom-com, you don’t know which guy to root for, so you end up rooting for Flora. This book doesn’t disappoint you by delivering heavy when you wanted light, but it has a soul to it that is unexpected.
As usual when I critique a 4-star book, I’m nitpicking. My issues revolve around Colgan’s chosen profession for Flora, Joel, and Kai. I don’t think she really understands what lawyers do. From the beginning I thought, “Why would a law firm send a paralegal to a remote island to figure out how to stop construction of a wind farm?” I know Colgan needed a way to get Flora there (and create a few other plot points that I won’t mention so that I don’t give anything away). But it seemed like such a stretch. I’m fairly certain that Colgan felt it too because the actual reason for Flora’s trip to Mure kept taking a back burner.
I also got a little tired of what I’ll refer to as “lawyer jokes” (there weren’t actual lawyer jokes in the book, but if you read it, you’ll probably understand the reference). Look, Joel’s a jerk, okay? We get it. But being a lawyer didn’t make him that way, and constantly linking the two got old and detracted from the empathy with which Colgan treats her characters.
I’m a big Top Chef fan, and one of the things Tom Colicchio mentions again and again is execution of simple things. Cook a simple omelette, but cook it perfectly and with perfect technique. Stop throwing sauces over a steak to hide the fact that it looks like a 5-year-old butchered it. Just do what you do, and do it well.
The Café by the Sea is simple, but it so well executed that it is elevated to a different level. Look, this was never going to be a 5-star book for me. It wasn’t a book that made me see the world around me in a different light. But it was exactly the escape that I wanted, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.