The Secret of Happy Ever After
Two years ago, I discovered Lucy Dillon’s books with the U.S. reprint of Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts. While I didn’t feel the glow of excitement with this book as with her first – I think that feeling is more common when discovering a new author – I do consider this a very solid addition to Ms. Dillon’s catalog of releases.
After getting expelled from school, Michelle Nightingale finds her career and life goals are harshly destroyed, leaving her floundering and depressed. For a while she mutely hibernates at home, not knowing what to do. Her parents attempt to guide her in different ways. Her father puts her to work in his car dealership, and soon she is his top salesperson. And her mother, while she is horrified at Michelle’s disgrace, fixes her up with Harvey, her father’s new manager.
Michelle misreads Harvey’s control as caring, and they marry. But now, after years of being belittled, Michelle finally finds the courage and will to break free. She moves to Longhampton, England. There she re-invents herself, opens a retail shop, and creates a well-ordered and emotion free life. Oh she has friends – three years ago, Anna McQueen and Pongo, a boisterous Dalmatian bungled their way into her life. But Michelle is very careful not to give away her secrets from the past.
Even though she had an idyllic childhood, as an only child Anna dreamed of a large family. So falling in love with Phil, a divorced man with three kids, seems more like a boon than a bane. But after the children’s mother temporarily moves to the U.S., Betta, Chloe, and Lily move in with them. After a disheartening Christmas, Anna finally realizes that she will always be second best. She feels excluded from family life in her own home. And she can’t even find comfort or escape in reading like she used to do, because she is too busy being a chauffeur, cook, laundress, and plain general dogsbody. Phil seems clueless about all she does to keep their life running smoothly. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Phil promised that in four years they would have their own child, and soon it will be her turn to have a baby — a baby whose life will revolve around her.
But in the meantime, her friend Michelle has a wonderful proposition. The bookstore next to Michelle’s business has been closed, and Michelle plans to re-open it and she wants Anna to run it. And Phil agrees to do his part so she can work again.
Being around the books of her childhood – like Ballet Shoes, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables – brings back magical memories. And Anna’s fervor for reading is contagious. Soon the store’s business has picked up. But will it be enough? Are books truly magical like Anna believes or is Michelle right – they just a commodity like everything else?
This book is very much apropos, as it shines the light on the role of bookstores and the challenges of keeping them open in today’s environment. And Ms. Dillon gives numerous examples of the wonder of books as they enrich lives from young to old.
The characterization is excellent, so much so that it was difficult to read about Anna’s journey. Is it necessary to put your hopes and dreams on the back burner for your husband’s kids, as they adjust to the disintegration of their family and the forming of new ones? For most of the book, I wanted Anna to be more assertive, but her way of handling the ups and downs of being a stepmother is by acquiescing and biting her tongue.
I identified more easily with Michelle. Hiding her vulnerabilities, because the two people that she trusted let her down, she feels like the new Michelle has her life under control. But her control means that she never shares the essence of who she is, hiding behind her micro-management and sterile life.
As with all of Ms. Dillon’s books, dogs play a role the main characters’ lives. Tavish, the elderly cantankerous Scottish terrier shows Michelle a different side of disheveled, untidy solicitor, Rory. And Ponga plays a part in the introduction of books into the lives of Anna’s stepchildren.
The book is not fast-paced. In fact, upon re-reading it for my review, I felt it dragged at times. Still since I firmly believe that animals and book enrich our lives, those messages kept me kept me turning the pages.
The resolution of Anna and Michelle’s problems seem a tad too easily resolved, but still I have to say that overall this is a satisfying and rewarding book.