Light Reading: Debbie Macomber & Catherine Alliott
Thanks to NetGalley I’ve just read two new books, both destined to be bestsellers. Rose Harbor in Bloom is the latest from Debbie Macomber. It’s the second book in the Rose Harbor series; readers of the Cedar Cove books will recognise some of the walk-on characters. Jo Marie Rose still can’t quite believe that her husband Paul has died in Afghanistan because his body has never been found. She’s making a new start by opening The Inn at Rose Harbor and has a prickly relationship with Mark, a handyman and gardener who is supposed to be helping her out. The story centres on the guests at the inn. Annie has organized a fiftieth wedding anniversary party for her grandparents, Kent and Julie Shivers. They’re supposed to have a perfect marriage, so why are they constantly sniping at each other? They’ve been driven down by Oliver, a family friend. This horrifies Annie, who dislikes him, while everyone else thinks she and Oliver were made for each other. The anniversary crowd fills most of the inn but there’s room for a solitary guest, Mary Smith, a successful career woman until she was struck by cancer. She’s still undergoing treatment but wants to get in touch with her former fiancé, George. Several story threads, a pretty setting, a sure hit with fans of Debbie Macomber.
Catherine Alliott writes chicklit of a very superior kind. I say this with authority after reading only one of her books but I did have a quick skip through a couple of her other novels in a charity shop and they’re obviously written in the same style. As soon as I saw the title My Husband Next Door, I thought of the sitcom My Wife Next Door, which I watched way back. It is referenced in the text:
I’d laughingly told them about a television sit-com, back in the day, called My Wife Next Door, about a couple who couldn’t live together, but had found a modus vivendi as neighbours. How funny it had been. Not much laughter from my offspring.
It’s a tricky situation, Ella living in the old farmhouse inherited by her husband Sebastian, Sebastian living in a shed in the garden. Not an ordinary shed, you understand; the whole place is like a self-sufficient homestead, with outhouses converted to holiday lets. The children Josh and Tabitha live with their mother but can still see their father. Sebastian’s wonderful Aunt Ottoline lives in one of the cottages. No wonder the neighbours find the situation odd. How did it come about?
Ella was an art student, Sebastian already a successful artist, when they fell madly in love and married when Ella was only nineteen. For a while they led a charmed life, with plenty of money due to Sebastian’s triumphant exhibitions. Then Sebastian stopped painting or rather, stopped finishing paintings, and started drinking. The move to the country was supposed to sort everything out but here the couple are, apparently unable to live either together or apart.
This is Cotswold country (Highgrove, Jilly Cooper, Katie Fforde) and the women Ella knows have names like Celia, Annabel and Puffy. Ella’s sister Ginny (children, Hugo and Araminta) fits in perfectly. Ella reminds me of Raffaella Barker’s heroine in Summertime, in that she is posh yet writes as though she’s really an outsider. When someone says to her, ‘There you are, beautiful and dreamy, in your sweetly chaotic inherited farm and your flowery dresses and your wellies, surrounded by ducks and chickens, with your talented, clever children. You live the dream. … I didn’t recognize this person. This girl she was describing, like someone stepping out of a Cath Kidston catalogue.’
Several crises face Ella at once. She thinks she’s in love with Ludo, the handsome landscape gardener, but they’re both married and she’s unwilling to take matters further. Ginny informs her that their father is going off the rails and that Mummy will have to come and live in one of Ella’s cottages until that situation is sorted out. Mummy is a snobbish, critical nightmare. Then Sebastian comes out with some surprising news. No wonder that Ella feels overwhelmed and wonders where on earth her life is going.
The difference between MHND and books with a similar market is that the problems seem real and it’s hard to see how they can be resolved. I enjoyed the social detail, found much of it amusing and the topical references apposite. I liked this, for instance: ‘Ludo … was always immaculately turned out, even in his gardening gear – in a Monty Don, bleu-de-travail sort of way.’ And this, when her mother updates her look: ‘A little bit like Mrs Middleton’s coat at the wedding: a clever twist on a classic, although obviously not in a mother-of-the-bride sort of way.’ There are quite a few surprises as the story develops and all is not as it seems. I enjoyed this very much and would be happy to read more of the same.