Welcome to Rosie Hopkins' Sweetshop of Dreams
Rosie Hopkins is in between nursing gigs when her mother calls asking for help. Age is catching up to Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian, and someone has to help Lilian move into assisted living and sell her sweet shop business. Rosie agrees to leave her temp jobs and her wishy-washy boyfriend to travel to the small Derbyshire village where Lilian has lived since birth. Rosie’s story of finding love and happiness in a new life and lifestyle is told opposite the story of Lilian’s World War II youth, which has a less happy outcome. I mostly enjoyed Rosie’s story and often laughed out loud at the witty writing, but I found Lilian’s story to be frustrating and sad.
Rosie was an enjoyable heroine. I liked how she shifted noticeably into “nurse mode” when dealing with Lilian professionally – she had that brisk and businesslike tone of voice the best nurses use to help with embarrassing situations like bathing a patient. I don’t understand the difference between “agency nurse” and “nurse,” so I wasn’t quite clear on why she was under-employed. I guess it’s a UK thing, and the author doesn’t really explain it enough for a foreign audience. I appreciated that when Rosie sets out to reopen the sweetshop and prepare it for sale, she’s not magically some brilliant businesswoman. Her nursing training has taught her to clean and keep good inventory, and for the rest, like bookkeeping or marketing, she turns to Lilian and an interested part-time neighbor. Some of the fish-out-of-water moments for London Rosie in the country were funny and credible, like her desire not to give in and wear a hideous but practical rain coat. Others, like her spectacular failure to ride a bike, were a bit over the top.
Rosie’s inertial relationship with her boyfriend is rather one-note. There were so many things wrong with it – he’s a mama’s boy, he never wants to go anywhere or do anything, she waits on him, yada yada – that there was no complexity in Rosie needing to break up with him. I did like that although he was a terrible fit for Rosie, the author didn’t make him a terrible human being. I did understand why they got together in the first place. I just didn’t respect Rosie for not moving on years ago.
I enjoyed watching the romantic interest Stephen spend time with Rosie. I understood Stephen’s broodiness: born into privilege, he struggled with his father to find a life that made him feel useful, and then saw that life crash around him. The author showed that Rosie was good for Stephen, although Rosie doesn’t need as much from him. Colgan works some credible class conflict in, as Stephen is to the manor born and Rosie is the help.
I was less satisfied with the quarter or so of the novel spent retelling Lilian’s World War II youth. The trouble with time-split narratives is that if present-day Lilian is living childless and with her original surname in the same village, I don’t actually need to read the story of her youth to know that she’s not getting her HEA. This book isn’t a straight romance, so I won’t penalize it excessively in my grade, but even in women’s fiction, the tension isn’t there when you know what’s coming. I do give Colgan credit for a generally immersive and historically interesting trip into the setting (although she missed the part where an unmarried girl of Lilian’s age would probably have been conscripted for war work). Lilian’s courtship story was sweet, and the misunderstandings in it were plausible because of the shy personalities and sheltered upbringings of the young people involved. That all being said, it wasn’t what I wanted for Lilian, and knowing something bad had to be coming was like watching for the train. Her present-day ending is also sad but realistic.
On a lighter note, Colgan’s writing is great fun, and is one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel. In criticizing the local doctor, Lilian says, “That man couldn’t diagnose a nail sticking out of your leg if you turned up with a nail sticking out of your leg, saying ‘Doctor, I just accidentally hammered a nail into my leg.’ And trust me, I should know.” Colgan also takes on the classic Forrest Gump “life is like a box of chocolates” line, calling it “a quotation of the highest nonsense. Every box of chocolates comes with a handy and clearly stated pictogram relating the shape of the chocolate to its flavor. Also a box of chocolates is always welcome and delicious. Life is in fact like a bag of [UK mixed candy] revels. You never know what you’re going to get, and half of it you won’t like.” Her writing style reminds me a great deal of Jennifer Crusie: funny, fast-paced, often wisecracking, and realistically conversational.
I want to add that Rosie does something extremely, extremely bad: during a party, she borrows a friend’s car, and “regardless of the weather, or how much she’d had to drink, she turned the key.” Drunk driving is a huge problem in rural areas because there aren’t other ways to get around, and I don’t object to the author giving me a character who makes this decision. I object that the author doesn’t return to the point later. Rosie’s regrets the following morning are entirely about the romantic decisions she made that night. As a nurse, she should have seen enough cases to at least feel guilty and lucky the following morning.
I’m pretty sure the Secret Code of the Sisterhood of Pithy Reviewers mandates that I come up with a candy metaphor for this novel. I’ll go with a bag of jellybeans. At times bitter, bright, cheerful, bland, unpleasant, fun, and silly, it was hard to put down and I kept going back for more. Although I didn’t enjoy every moment, I had many good moments and a few terrific ones, so overall I’m satisfied with this choice.