The Café by the Sea : A Novel
The first chapter of Jenny Colgan’s The Café By the Sea had me squirming in anticipation. Written in a sort of first-person, all-knowing viewpoint, I loved the unique style of storytelling that felt like having my best, snarkiest friend narrate a movie that I was watching. However, this style quickly morphed into a more traditional form, and while the entire book is very well written, it soon became necessity rather than desire that compelled me to finish it.
Flora Mackenzie, a twenty-six year-old Scottish Bridget Jones, left her northern island home of Mure for the excitement and opportunities of London. A paralegal at a successful law practice, she mostly enjoys her friends and her city lifestyle while nursing a huge, unrequited crush on her handsome American boss, Joel Binder. She certainly has no intention of returning home any time soon, the memories and bad feelings she left behind on Mure after her mother’s early death too painful for her to face. So when Joel summons Flora to his office and invokes her services as a Mure-native to assist his biggest client’s efforts to set up a resort on the clannish island, she is horrified.
But given that it’s her job, Flora travels back to Mure to help bridge the communication gap between billionaire Colton Rogers and the Scottish islanders. There she discovers that her father and three brothers, busy working the family farm, have done little to make a true home for themselves since Anne Mackenzie’s passing. Guilted by the judgmental people of Mure who disapproved of Flora’s flight from the island as well as her own sense that she abandoned her family, Flora gets down to the cleaning and cooking. She happens upon her mother’s hand-written book of recipes and soon rediscovers the joys in preparing the well-loved dishes that are the core of many of her family’s happiest memories.
Meanwhile, Flora works with Colton Rogers to figure out a way to win the support of the island’s residents. They want to build a money-making wind farm off the coast of Colton’s high-end resort, a development that he wishes to stop at all costs. He and Flora determine that if Colton can show the community that he intends to invest in the island by providing jobs and improving the lives of everyone there, they might convince the town council to move the wind farm to a more discreet location. The first step is for Flora to open a temporary café in an abandoned building that Colton has purchased, using her mother’s recipes to excite people about the local cuisine as well as providing food for Colton’s new resort.
For his part, Joel Binder wants to please Colton Rogers and secure the man as his biggest client. But he’s starting to see that his single-minded focus on his job has not filled the emptiness that has followed him from childhood. Visiting the beautiful island of Mure only magnifies the fact that his life is hollow, and he begins to wonder if Flora Mackenzie might be the answer.
At first, Colton Rogers comes across as the love child of Steve Jobs, Diana Ross and a barely more tolerable Donald Trump. He’s an American businessman who has swooped down on this unspoiled island with the intentions of exploiting its beauty and inhabitants for his own gain. However, he becomes far more likable as he explains his reasons for trying to stop the construction of the wind farm, and his attempts to woo the islanders become authentic when he offers true solutions to help them overcome a lack of jobs and opportunity.
My biggest issue with The Café By the Sea is that while the book synopsis indicates there is a romance – reference is made to the fact that Flora is “hopelessly in love with her boss” – there is no love story in this love story; at least not the type I was expecting when I picked out this novel. Flora and Joel have less than a dozen scenes together, and over half of those are either business related or include other people. These are two virtual strangers who know absolutely nothing about each other, and yet we are to believe that they have fallen in love. When? How?
Too, Joel is presented as not much more than a type-A workaholic with a tragic childhood to give him depth and a reason for his current career obsession and inability to ever commit. Out of the blue he ‘notices’ Flora and is fascinated by her for reasons like her pale hair and skin and her cultural heritage. For her part, Flora is in love with Joel in the same way she’d loved movie stars when she was a teenager. She knows nothing about him as person, only that he is handsome and has a great body. Flora’s other potential love interest, Charlie, makes a whole lot more sense, and their relationship os at least fleshed out and based on shared history and experiences.
Rather than an effective love story, what we end up with is a study on the current social-economic climate wherein people in rural areas are forced to leave their homes when they can’t find local sustainable employment. We have the political dilemma of the rich exploiting the local inhabitants, with the added touch of environmental responsibility versus encouraging the creation of jobs and growing the local economy. Throw in a coming-out-of-the-closet sub-story and you end up with more of the changing-with-the-times theme. As a side note: I actually think I would have enjoyed exploring the Colton/Fintan relationship more than the love story between Flora and Joel.
I suppose the big question in the book was whether or not Flora would stay in Mure – where she’d started a successful business doing something that she absolutely loved – or return to the city where she is not much more than a corporate drone with no true emotional connections. Comparisons between city life and life on the island reveal Colgan’s agenda with very little subtlety. London is always described as hot and crowded and noisy and smelly and dirty, while Mure is clean, fresh, beautiful and wild. So for the entirety of the story, whenever Flora kept insisting she would, naturally, be returning to the big city, I never bought it. No one in her right mind would choose London over Mure, especially once Colton Rogers begins investing in the island.
Other than a few confusing moments of point-of-view deviation, the writing is solid, the descriptions of the island evoking a beautiful albeit harsh landscape. Being as author Colgan is Scottish, the people of Mure are not caricatures (as is unfortunately the case in so many books set in Scotland) but very authentic in their manner of speaking, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the festivals, foods and traditions of the island. I wished for some form of pronunciation guide as to how to mentally sound out the Gaelic names, and the American characters sounded less American than watered-down Scottish. But based on the book, I wish that Mure were not fictional and that I could book a vacation there immediately.
In the end, The Café By the Sea is less a love story between two people than it is a love story between a woman and her fictional Scottish island home, its people, culture and food. If you are looking for a true romance, keep looking. If you want a well-written book that rambles a bit, by all means, this book is just fine.