We get to spend the holidays at the charming island of Mure thanks to “Christmas at the Island Hotel” by Jenny Colgan. Colgan writes charming stories of people who are tired of huge, crowded, impersonal cities and long to escape to somewhere where the air is clean, the sky uncluttered by tall buildings, and the view peaceful and pastoral.
In her latest novel about Mure Island, Colgan continues story lines that were begun in previous novels, but more importantly brings two new characters into the limelight. Isla is a shy local girl who has worked for Flora, the owner of the local cafe, with her best friend Iona. Konstantin is the spoiled, arrogant son of a Norwegian aristocratic family. Since his mother died, he and his father have muddled along, but Konstantin’s ever-increasing antics and irresponsible behavior result in his father banishing him from Norway. He is sent to Mure Island to work in the kitchen of the new hotel.
In fact, that hotel was left to Flora’s brother Fintan by his husband, Coltan, who died from cancer. Fintan is still, after over a year, bereft. He has no interest in opening the hotel, which was Coltan’s pride and joy. Flora, on the other hand, has been bored with her maternity leave and is happy to leave her newborn Douglas in the capable hands of his father, Joel.
Isla gets moved from the cozy cafe to work at The Rock, as the hotel is known. There she meets Konstantin, a completely useless young man who has no idea how to do anything practical. He doesn’t know how to clean pans, how to chop an onion, or how to make his bed. Konstantin has no idea how useless he was until he was thrown into a job that, as menial as it was, he had to work and learn to be able to perform.
As usual, Colgan works her magic, and we are quickly engaged in the lives of the many characters in the story. We like Konstantin from the start because he will not leave his faithful dog behind. We sympathize with Flora as she worries about being a horrible mother and feels that the baby loves his father more than her. We love the exotic names and Flora’s extremely bratty niece, Agot.
Our heart breaks for Saif and Lorna, in love yet in limbo because of Saif’s missing wife who is also the mother of his two sons. Until he knows what happened to her after they escaped their war-torn country, he can’t commit to Lorna. So they hide their feelings from everyone on the tiny island and wait.
The island of Mure itself is almost another character. It’s winter, and the island is dark by 3:30 in the afternoon. The air is frigid, but astonishingly, the locals brave the cold to go out, walk, and even swim in the ocean. Colgan’s descriptions make one yearn to visit this fictional island in spite of its distance and paucity of entertainment. One longs to sit in the MacKenzie family farmhouse, shabby though it is, and drink tea while sitting by the fire.
While this can certainly be read as a stand alone, why not read “The Cafe by the Sea” in which Flora’s island adventure begins. And while it’s easy to write about Colgan’s stories as light fare, she also includes some very thoughtful passages about refugees and love and life in her writing. There’s humor as well as pathos, and love as well as loss. No one is perfect and some of the twists are beautiful and unpredictable, just as life is.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.