Jenny Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure, location of her book The Café By The Sea and one of the novellas from A Very Distant Shore, to give us another atmospheric, pretty, cozy (and sometimes a bit stereotypical) tale about life in the tiny summer town.
The Endless Beach continues to chronicle the life of Flora McKenzie, heroine of Café by the Sea, who gave up life in the big city of London to re-embrace her small town roots and move back to her hometown, establishing her restaurant Summer Seaside Kitchen on Endless Beach in Mure. She still rushes to keep up with her three brothers and father, still works with boy-gaga Isla and Iona, still dodges monstrous Jan’s barbs (this time while planning Jan’s wedding to Charlie) – and she’s still with the handsome American lawyer Joel Binder, her former boss, who also traded in London for life in small town Scotland to live with her. Between books, the twosome have gone from a first kiss to embarking on a faltering romance that leaves Flora feeling unsteady.
For while Flora loves her bustling shop, and life in Mure is more important to her “than Brexit, than global warming, than the fate of the world”, she’s definitely worried that Joel isn’t blending in and adjusting as well as she is; worse, that he loves the island less than she does. Feeling distant from him in most aspects of their shared life, and aware that his blighted childhood has made bonding with others difficult, she worries that he’s getting bored in the tiny town that once so enchanted him – worse yet, bored with her.
While visiting her friend Saif one afternoon, they spot a rarity in the ocean – a whale, which has come close to shore. This is an omen that Murians consider to be bad luck, and though Flora isn’t superstitious, the fragile state of her new life makes her worried about its meaning. Those fears seem to be confirmed when Joel jumps at the chance to revisit America for a business trip to New York; labeled (by Joel) a distraction, Flora is left home alone to deal with the busy summer season, and when she visits him in New York, it goes poorly. Flora is left to choose between sticking it out with Joel or moving on without him.
Two other subplots and points of view round out the novel. Flora’s brother Fintan’s relationship with Joel’s co-worker Colton continues apace and ascends to the next level as they try to work out the complexities of their long-distance connection. And Syrian émigré pediatrician Saif, separated from his wife and sons when they fled their home county, struggles to deal with the disappearance of his wife in a bombing raid while trying to help his newly-found sons – who were living on the street and are now fearful and resentful of the world at large. As the summer grows closer and the whale shows some unusual characteristics, the impossible suddenly seems quite possible in Mure.
Jenny Colgan is undeniably talented, and her great sense of life in the UK speaks to the reader; her Little Beach Bakery books are a favorite of mine. That said, the Summer Seaside Kitchen series has proven to be the weakest of her four ongoing tales, and The Endless Beach doesn’t fix the problems that were inherent in The Café by The Sea. Adding a somewhat more grim tone to the proceedings only makes the novel harder to finish.
Flora’s romance is the hardest part of the story to sympathize with, as Joel still seems to only love Flora for aesthetic reasons; her beauty, which so meshes with the island, her roots, because he has none. There’s no real substance there when it comes to the romance, no real meat or binding material, and the reader is expected, endlessly, to understand his chilly dismissal of Flora’s warmth because he survived a ‘bad fostering situation’ (there is a subtheme about how terrible the foster care system is and how orphans should be allowed extra emotional leeway to bend social norms because of their suffering); it’s Flora’s job to ‘fix’ his wounded psyche by figuring out his limitations without his communication or explanation. The relationship simply fails to function properly. Flora, still bowled over by his handsomeness, is not over her hero worship of Joel – she’s still too afraid to treat him as an equal; the idea of asking him for money, for emotional support, ‘fills her with terror’. There’s an incompleteness there that Colgan has never been able to repair.
Saif’s story is the most moving, involving and engrossing of the three main ones here, and the one that feels almost too weighty to be in a book like this. While he struggles with his shell-shocked and heartbroken sons and tries to anglicize them, Mure rolls on around them, with its magic whales and goofy fishermen. A relationship between Saif and Lorena, his neighbor, is explored with taste.
Fintan and Colton’s subplot is smoothly told, funny and romantic – a welcome relief from the drama surrounding them, until the last fifty or so pages soak their whole storyline in melodrama. There’s precious little about Flora’s other brothers in this one – and Agot – Flora’s niece – is one of those annoying moppets who communicates in all-caps caveperson speak even though she’s supposed to be four (ME DO IT). Minus her odd style of speaking, she’d be one of the best characters in the book with her love of Robot Wars and zest for life. Authors, small children Agot’s age do not talk like this, and trying to claim that a child in a bilingual household would speak like a cave person in one of their native languages is ridiculous.
As with most Colgan books, Mure is filled with people who gossip but (except for the hated Jan) are generally good natured; they’re too pleasant sometimes to feel like real people and are often given a single personality trait to work with, especially when put up against city folk. Under it all, there is Colgan’s usual opinionating about the worth of country living versus city living; New Yorkers are portrayed unsubtly and uniformly as vain, carb and fat hating snobs. None of the difficulties of life in a rural small town (and as someone who currently resides in one – trust me, they exist) are ever examined.
Colgan’s style is never a letdown – lyrical and yet practical, you can hear the lilt of the isle in her prose. But the sticky wicket is the editing, which is just flat out bad, with jarring head-hopping between characters to explain motives away that ultimately ends up diffusing narrative tension – and the last hundred pages of the book really are so awfully, over-the-top melodramatic and ought to have been pruned judiciously.
But Colgan’s readers are not likely to yearn for realism; like Blanche Dubois, they want magic. They read her because they want an escape. For those who loved The Café by The Sea, this will be an indispensible read, but everyone else should proceed with caution.
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