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.