The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

The Matchmaker's List book coverThe premise of this book is simple: Raina, a half-Indian 29-year-old Canadian, has promised her (Indian) grandmother, who raised her, that she will agree to be set up on dates if she isn’t married by 30. Everyone remotely familiar with Indian culture will understand that this is a typical situation for women in their late 20s. Raina’s grandmother, Nani, jumps the gun a bit and starts harassing her early, giving her a list of suitable Indian men for her to contact and even setting up a meeting herself. Raina wants to find someone on her own, but meets some of these men, leading to some pretty funny scenes. To make matters worse, Raina’s best friend is engaged to a perfect guy, and she doesn’t seem to understand Raina’s situation.

There is actually a lot going on in the book. It shows how Indian culture operates, even in Canada, and how much unfair pressure gets put on women. Raina tries to be a dutiful granddaughter but she’s a strong, modern woman who doesn’t think that the only thing she’s good for is marrying and reproducing. She has a successful career in banking and works hard and a lot, and in many ways she doesn’t have time to date. But even more significant is her ex-boyfriend, who she’s very hung-up on. She thinks they might have a chance and doesn’t want to throw that away by settling for someone just for the sake of getting married. So the book deals a lot with the psychology of trying to please one conservative (but evolving) culture while living in an ostensibly more modern one.

I really liked the story, although there are some things that happen in the second half that I didn’t love. Raina allows Nani to think something about her that isn’t true, and Raina lets that little lie go on long enough that it hurts people. That kind of bugged me. This isn’t a romance even though it is a story about love, partially because it’s impossible to tell who’ll she’ll end up with (even though any reader would guess that she’d end up with somebody). I have to admit I felt a little unmoored by this because I wasn’t sure who to care about besides Raina and her family and friends. What guy should I root for? I had no idea. And the romance with the guy she does finally end up with felt a little forced. I didn’t really see their attraction build like I would have liked. Though to be fair, I did really like the guy (much better than the ones she passed on!).

Despite having those qualms with the story, I think Raina herself is a wonderfully complex and likable character. The other main characters (primarily her friend Shay, Nani) are also interesting and well-depicted. There’s some good conflict with both of them that felt very realistic and it was satisfying to see it resolved.

In summary, if you’re curious about/interested in Indian culture in Canada and America, this will definitely educate you while keeping you entertained with a good story. I imagine it’s probably also especially popular with any second-generation+ immigrants who have to deal with two worlds the way Raina does. It can’t be easy.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine book coverI have to say that this book isn't the kind I normally review here, but I read it and loved it and thought I'd share. It is about a woman, so it's in the realm of what I review, at least.

Eleanor is thirty and has a job as a finance administration assistant at a graphic design firm, something she's been doing since finishing college. She doesn't really get along with her coworkers because she's totally socially inept and doesn't care at all to overcome that. In fact, part of her ineptness is not caring. Rightfully, her coworkers think she's weird. But when she and a coworker help an old man in the street, it sets off an interesting and unexpected chain of events. She wasn't interested in helping the guy:

Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so they don't cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me.

But Raymond—her coworker—has a very different outlook on things. They help the man and Raymond convinces her to visit him in the hospital, when they meet and befriend his family, against her better sensibilities. Raymond becomes an agent of change in her life, helping her make herself a totally different person by the end.

There's also quite the mystery because we know something really bad happened to her when she was young, but we—and she herself, actually—don't know what it is. It's a pretty engaging storyline that will keep you guessing, even though once you find out, it feels fairly obvious. But in a good way.

Anyway, I really liked this book. It's very unusual because of the character so if you're looking for something quite unique, pick this one up.

Good Luck with That by Kristan Higgins

Good Luck with That book coverThis is another of Higgins’ more recent non-romance novels. Of course, there is romance in it—two in fact—but it isn’t the focus of the book. Instead, the novel deals with how incredibly difficult it is to accept yourself and be happy when you’re a woman in America who didn’t win the gene lottery in the body size department.

The book is mostly about Georgia and Marley and their relationship each other, their weight, and their friend Emerson, who dies at the beginning after becoming so large she’s housebound. The three of them met at weight-loss camp when they were teenagers and became best friends, but their lives took Emerson a different direction while Marley and Georgia actually share a house (Marley rents an apartment from Georgia in the same house).

Georgia is a pre-school teacher now, but went to Yale Law and used to be a successful New York lawyer. She also was previously married to the perfect man, Rafe, but basically ruined that marriage with her low self-confidence and eating issues. Marley is a professional she who runs her own business, delivering meals to people who don’t have time to cook. She has never been on a date, despite being a charming and happy person. She had a twin who died at four and she and her whole family have never gotten over it.

Georgia and Marley are both very likable and I definitely could empathize with their weight and food issues. Georgia has actually lost a bunch of weight but she’s having some stomach issues that she’s ignoring despite knowing better. Marley is half in love with a firefighter named Camden she knows through her brother. He sleeps with her occasionally but wants to keep it on the down low.

When Emerson dies, she leaves them with a task: carry out all the activities on a list they made when they were teens. The list was basically what they all wanted to do once they were skinny enough.

  1. Hold hands with a cute guy in public.
  2. Go running in tight clothes and a sports bra.
  3. Get a piggyback ride from a guy.
  4. Be in a photo shoot.
  5. Eat dessert in public.
  6. Tuck in a shirt.
  7. Shop at a store for regular people.
  8. Have a cute stranger buy you a drink at a bar.
  9. Go home to meet his parents.
  10. Tell off the people who judged us when we were fat.

Most of these I’ve personally never done and never will and a lot of fat women will feel the same (I have guiltily eaten dessert in public, knowing I’m being judged, and I did a photo shoot for my author photos, which was very, very uncomfortable for me).

Although she’s dead, Emerson appears throughout the story through her journals (which the two other women eventually get, so it works). She’s got a great voice even while she’s self-destructing. She makes meaningful observations like the following:

Sometimes I see girls running in their sports bras and tiny pairs of shorts, their stomachs flat, their breasts high and snug, and it’s like they’re another species.

I know what she means. Fat women are treated like a third gender.

So there’s a lot going on in this book, which is balanced pretty evenly between Marley and Georgia with a little Emerson thrown in. It takes place almost exclusively in the present. There are some other great characters in the story, too. I particularly love Georgia’s nephew Mason, who is actually believable as a sweet and oblivious 14-year-old. And Mason’s father, Georgia’s brother, is also great as a positively horrible human being. Georgia’s other family is good too, and Marley’s from a big, loving Italian family full of different personalities.

Higgins successfully pulls at the heartstrings again with this one. Fans of hers will like it, but I think it would also resonate with a lot of fat women who may not have read her yet.

The Endless Beach by Jenny Colgan

The Endless Beach book coverThis is the the sequel to The Café by the Sea, which I reviewed here previously.

This one is mostly about Flora, who’s moved back to the (fictional) northern Scottish island of Mure and runs the town’s only café. She’s still in a relationship with her former boss, Joel, but he’s in New York with the island’s billionaire, Colton. One nice thing about the book is that it isn’t only about Flora—other characters feature, too, specifically Joel, Fintan and Colton, Saif, and Lorna. The characters are all well-developed and relatable.

Flora’s story revolves around Joel, mostly, but also the cafe she’s running and her relationship with her family. She and Joel are having trouble because Joel is both literally and figuratively absent. He won’t open up and share himself with Flora the way she wants. Then he’s facing some issues himself and needs to make a change for himself, not just for Flora. Saif gets some unexpected but hoped-for news that changes everything for him. Fintan and Colton’s story gets complicated near the end even though it seems anything but for most of the book. And Lorna’s story develops a little, though probably the least of all the ones mentioned here.

This is a pretty heavy book, compared to some of Colgan’s others. Still, I enjoyed it. The point of view still distracted me—jumping from one person’s head to another was jarring, but it allows her to tell multiple people’s stories efficiently. I do love the Scottish island setting—I miss Scotland and could read about it all the time. If you’ve read The Café by the Sea, you’ll want to see what happens next. If you haven’t go check that one out first.

The Cafe by the Sea by Jenny Colgan

The Cafe by the Sea book coverFlora is a paralegal living the life in London. She’s convinced she loves it and doesn’t regret leaving where she grew up, the (fictional) island of Mure north of Scotland. She hasn’t been back for several years after leaving under a dark cloud of some sort. When a very odd work assignment sends her back—still against her wishes—she’s reacquainted with her dad and brothers. We learn pretty quick that her mom died earlier and it was after her funeral when Flora had left.

The island cast is full—there’s Flora’s gruff dad, her teasing brothers, her young niece who yells all her words, an old friend to commiserate with about men, the uber-rich American who’s bought a chunk of the island and pissed everyone off in the process, a giant and cuddly love interest. And of course Joel, Flora’s boss in London who she’s had a hopeless crush on since she started working there, visits on several occasions. There’s ceilidh dancing, mountain hiking, a thing with a whale. If you like things Scottish, all this will appeal to you.

Flora’s cool and I liked her brothers and the rich American. I wasn’t as big on Joel, but I guess a lot of women find jerky men attractive if they have some vulnerability, which he does. We eventually find out what terrible thing Flora did before she left Mure the last time. She finally really makes amends with her family in a satisfying way.

So overall, it was an enjoyable read. There were some things that bugged me about the book, however. The first was a stylistic choice that surprised me because it wasn’t there in The Little Bookshop on the Corner, another of Colgan’s novels that I really liked. Specifically, I’m talking about head-hopping—shifting points of view from one character’s to another within the same scene. Now, there are some popular authors who do this (I can think of Nora Roberts and Beverly Jenkins), but it personally drives me crazy. I like deep point of view and generally prefer only one character’s perspective, though I can handle switching between characters if we’re talking about the entire scene. She switches not only in the same scene, but sometimes in the same sentence:

Obediently they breathed, Joel thinking crossly about money, Flora enjoying the fresh air but wondering why Colton appeared to think it all belonged to him.

I know there is omniscient point of view, where the author can get in anybody’s head, but that needs to be established early on, in my view. This book is solidly in Flora’s point of view about 97% of the time.

The other thing has to do with the island culture. I understood that the island was far to the north of Scotland. At one point they make a reference to Reykjavik being closer than London, which means it’s pretty far out there. But Colgan has the island fully Gaelic, with people speaking the language and living the culture just as they do on the Western Isles. But the northern islands off Scotland aren’t Gaelic—they’re more influenced by Norwegian culture and have a language called Norn that came from Norse. So then I thought, okay, maybe it’s way to the north of the Western Isles rather than the mainland of Scotland… but then near the end of the book she mentions people speaking Norn. Gaelic and Norn don’t coexist naturally (there are efforts to bring back Gaelic all over the country, so maybe now there’s some of that).

Anyway, enough complaining. If head-hopping or weird cultural mash-ups bug you, maybe skip this one. But if they don’t, it’s a sweet story.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

The Bookshop on the Corner book coverThe Bookshop on the Corner is lovely, even if the name doesn’t quite fit. The main character’s bookshop is too unique to be that simplistically summed up.

I should mention that this isn’t a romance, but there is a significant romance in the book—it just doesn’t really get going right away. So it doesn’t follow the traditional course of a romance novel, even if it does start off with a major problem for the heroine.

Nina Redmond is a librarian passionate about her job—she adores the matchmaking process of finding the right book for the right person. So it’s pretty devastating when she’s laid off. She doesn’t have a lot of options because the library system in Birmingham (that would be the one in England) doesn’t care about books anymore. They’re trying to cater to the younger crowd and focus on different media. The library offers all the staff made redundant a team-building/career training and during the training, Nina admits to always wanting to own a bookshop. Somehow this idea warps into owning a mobile bookshop.

Despite her friends’ reservations, Nina seeks out a van, finding one in Kirrinfief, a village up in the Highlands in Scotland, that looks perfect and affordable. She travels there and the owner of the van balks when he sees she’s “just a tiny woman,” someone he can’t envision driving his van. She goes back to Birmingham downtrodden and van-less, only to find out that a couple of the men she met at the local pub before meeting the van’s owner have offered to buy it from him and sell it to her. Everything seems great—until she can’t obtain the permits she’d need to park the van on her street in Birmingham. So she makes another decision that surprises everybody: she moves to Kirrinfief. She’s lucky enough to find a lovely modernized barn apartment on Lennox Farms, which is run by a gruff farmer (that would be Lennox himself).

Nina meets a variety of people through an early mishap involving a deer, her van, and a train and through her work, which goes pretty well. There’s a love interest in Marek, a lonely Latvian train driver, before Lennox really comes on scene for the main course. Nina’s life seems to be turning around. A lot of things are going well, but there are still a few challenges she has to face.

As I implied earlier, it’s a charming book. The setting of the Scottish Highlands is wonderful and so well-drawn. Colgan puts in just enough of the local flavor to give us the sound of the language with her ayes, coudlnaes, disnaes, an occasional Scots word, and even some overheard Gaelic, all without overdoing it. She paints the rural countryside and farm colorfully, too. It all made me miss being there.

The characters are all excellent and highly distinctive. Nina herself is so likable and relatable. She’s shy but got a streak of bold buried in her. Her best friend Surinder is entertaining. Marek is interesting and Lennox is intriguing from the beginning, even before I was sure he’d be a love interest. There are a few stereotypes among the secondary characters, but Colgan’s populated a whole town, so it’s all in fun. My favorite was the sullen teenager who Nina befriends.

I was not familiar with Colgan before this book, but I can say I’m definitely likely to read another one by her when I’m looking for something feel-good. I can recommend it to anyone who likes a complicated love story, hearing about books, or reading about rural Scotland.

My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

My (Not So) Perfect Life book coverWho doesn’t love a story set in modern-day, crazy London?

Kinsella starts us off basically on the tube with Katie Brenner, who’s recently rebranded herself “Cat” in an attempt to escape from her country roots. Because being rural is just not cool in London. She works for a marketing (branding?) agency as a very junior research assistant, but she has hopes of moving up. She has the skill, but maybe not the luck.

Anyway, back to the opening. We get a hilarious picture of the morning commute. You might not think that could be funny, but in Katie’s voice, it definitely is. “Commuting in London is basically warfare,” but she still manages to provide us with some laugh-out-loud moments and this just sets the tone for the whole book, which is full of these moments.

Katie’s boss is a frazzled woman named Demeter who has a mild case of face blindness and can’t keep her employees—or her calendar—straight. Despite this, she’s known to be a bit of a branding genius and Katie’s constantly trying to get noticed by her. So she’s not happy when Demeter calls her in for some special task, only to find out she is to touch up Demeter’s roots in the office. Soon after that, she meets Alex, another rock star branding guy, but he’s actually young and pretty cute and even seems interested in Katie. She soon makes what appears to be a little headway in the office, getting herself into an important meeting. Then one of the other women in the office invites her to hang out. Things start to look up. Friends. Career growth.

Then the bottom falls out when she gets fired (I guess technically, laid off) by Demeter. She ends up back at her dad’s farm in Somerset, helping him get a new glamping business started. (Glamping is “glamour camping” for those not in the know.) She throws herself into that while desperately searching for a new job. Imagine her surprise when Demeter shows up at the newly opened glamping site… At first Katie actually goes a little mental and exacts some pretty funny revenge on Demeter, who doesn’t recognize her. But then everything changes when she finds out more about Demeter. And the book goes off in a direction that genuinely surprised me. When Alex appears at the farm, Katie doesn’t know what to think. Things are definitely not as they seem. I enjoyed the mild intrigue that follow.

The book’s really about being true to yourself and doing the right thing, and Katie’s a great character to experience it with. As I mentioned, it’s very funny throughout, but I should also mention that the dialogue is wonderful (humorous of course, but real and clever, too) and the characters are relatable. Katie’s great, Demeter’s surprising, Alex is sufficiently enchanting, and Katie’s dad and stepmom are both funny and engaging.

If you’re in the mood to laugh while getting a story that will still move you, then pick this one up.

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

On Second Thought book coverOn Second Thought is the first of Higgins’ non-romance* books that I’ve read. And I’m happy to report I loved it. There is romance in the book—two, in fact—but the main storyline is two grown sisters getting close to each other for the first time.

Kate O’Leary is a 39-year-old successful photographer when she meets Nathan. They’re married in a few months and trying to start a family. When Nathan is killed just 96 days into their marriage in a freak accident, she’s devastated and completely shaken. Not just because she lost someone she loved, but because she’d totally uprooted herself and moved (herself and her studio) from Brooklyn to a giant house in a small wealthy town where Nathan’s family lives. On top of that, because she’d known him such a short time, she feels like an imposter mixing among all these grieving people who’ve known him for so much longer.

Her younger half-sister Ainsley is in a very long-term relationship with a Wall Street guy, Eric, waiting patiently for him to propose. But when Nathan dies—at Eric’s free-from-cancer celebration party, right before Eric is going to publicly propose—Eric freaks out a bit. He abruptly and coldly breaks up with Ainsley to go find himself in the wilds of Alaska.

Higgins is a master of digging into the depths of her characters’ thoughts. Nathan’s wake is a long scene told from Kate’s perspective. There is an apparently interminable line of people paying their condolences, leaving time for Kate to think all sorts of thoughts and react to all sorts of people. Near the beginning of the scene, she’s thinking about Nathan’s nephews, who are devastated.

The thought of their sweet, bereft faces made my throat feel like a nail had been driven through it. A spike, actually, a big rusty railroad spike. Their uncle. Their only uncle.

Four days ago, I was married. That had been enough of a trip. Now I was a widow. I ask you—how weird was that? (My brain seemed to be generating only italicized words, like an overdramatic narrator.)

Brooke lost her beloved younger brother. The Coburns no longer had a son.

Nathan was dead.

I mean, really. What the fuck?

The use of that last word is so perfect (I think it’s the only time it’s used in the book) because it’s so powerful here. She also uses the rusty spike throughout the book, which takes us right back to the horrible wake.

We also get to see Ainsley at the wake and get to know her as a great woman rising to the occasion while so many other people fail miserably. We see her on her own before all the bad stuff goes down, as she basically hero-worships her tool of a boyfriend. And when he does dump her, he does so publicly. He invites her to a fancy restaurant and tells her he wants her to move out (he “accidentally” left her name off the mortgage when they bought their house). Then he writes a blog post that goes viral about her reaction. He goes on several national news shows to talk about his intended journey, the whole time humiliating Ainsley. The result of getting kicked out is that Ainsley moves in with Kate, which is such a relief to Kate (she hates being in Nathan’s giant house alone).

Kate’s and Ainsley’s voices are so great—they’re so different from each other yet both are likable (and, I’m happy to report, not silly). As I mentioned, Higgins goes deep into both of their minds, which takes us on their journeys with them. Kate’s grief is palpable and heartbreaking. And while Ainsley’s situation is obviously not quite as horrible, we still really feel her pain. Kate’s journey is primarily getting over her grief and dealing with the aftereffects of such a short marriage ending so abruptly. Ainsley’s journey’s a little different. She has to learn to accept the fact that Eric is a total douche and she’s better off without him.

The supporting characters are all also excellent. So different from each other and well-developed. The three primary men in the book are very realistically drawn despite the fact that we never get in their heads. Setting is wonderful and detailed. Dialogue shines. And although the book is pretty heavy—heavier than Higgins’ romances—it’s got so many funny moments (mostly Ainsley’s).

So if you like deep stories about real women dealing with real issues, you should enjoy On Second Thought. I definitely did.

 

* I know most people call this book “women’s fiction.” But I refuse to acknowledge the existence of such a ”genre.” It’s simply non-genre fiction that focuses on women protagonists. We don’t call Jonathan Franzen’s work “men’s fiction.” It is not true that when men write it it’s fiction and when women write it it’s some sort of deviation from the real thing and needs its own label. That would be sexist.