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Jenny Colgan has been writing pleasant romantic dramas for a couple of decades now. I reviewed her first two novels Amanda’s Wedding and Talking to Addison when they were released. Her early books were set in London. Since then she has broadened her scope to Birmingham and the Scottish highlands. The Bookshop on the Shore features characters from both London and Birmingham who were in some of her previous novels, but it is mainly set in Scotland next to Loch Ness. The plot features Zoe and her four year old son Hari, who start out in London but are having a hard time coping with the high rent and difficulties living in a big city. Eventually Zoe gets the chance to take a job as an au pair for a family in Scotland, and with great trepidation, she takes it. She finds that the family is a father and three unruly children living in a mansion with one cleaner and one gardener. The father seems to be away all the time and pays only sporadic attention to the children, who run wild and fight with each other. So the question is whether Zoe can succeed with getting the children's respect when the previous six au pairs have failed. Readers can take a guess about the result. So although a bit predictable i its main elements, the story is enjoyable for its large and varied cast of characters. We get a sense of modern Scotland, which is largely white but has some diversity. Hari is a mixed race boy, so he has some challenges fitting in, but that's not the biggest of his problems.
The children are the most interesting characters in this novel, mainly because of the difficulties they face. Hari has elective mutism, and never makes any sounds, not even when he cries. This leads other people to say how lucky Zoe is, to her annoyance. The specialists say that he will talk when he is ready, but he seems to get along without speaking quite well. A doctor suggests putting Hari on a psychiatric medication, and Zoe reacts in horror. All three of the children that Zoe is employed to look after behave badly, and it seems that's mostly because they have no discipline and their mother is absent. Shackelton is the oldest, a surly 12 year old who says very little. Mary is the middle one, and the most hostile. Patrick is the youngest, and he never stops talking. As the novel proceeds, we get to see how they respond to adult limits on their behavior and genuine concern about their well-being. By the end, the novel explores several themes of mental illness and dysfunction, and it is surprisingly optimistic that medications plus love can solve childhood problems. It's not the most profound analysis of the experiences of childhood mental problems, but it does give a sympathetic portrayal.
There are some big dramatic scenes, confrontations, and unexpected plot twists. It's a long book at over 400 pages, and the unabridged audio version is over 13 hours. But it is entertaining all the way through. It is helped by the narration by Eilidh Beaton who is a natural with the Scottish accents and keeps the tone bright even at the dark moments. It's good summer fare.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.
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