One of the strengths of Jenny Colgan’s writing is that she creates characters who seem so real and so approachable, we end up feeling as if we know them and are friends with them. In “Sunrise by the Sea,” we return to the tidal island Mount Polbearne, accessible to the mainland Cornwall at low tide only. While we meet Marisa, who has been devastated by the death of her grandfather, we also learn about Polly and Huckle, and how their lives have been changed by having twins.
Marisa is suffering from depression or anxiety — it’s never clear exactly what it is, but it’s clear she feels that she can’t leave the safety of her house. When her landlord kicks her out of the room she rents in Exeter, where she has started to work remotely, he offers her a place in Mount Polbearne. Marisa having no other options, goes to this remote village, on an island that is only accessible by car during low tide, to a cottage that is isolated on a hill away from town. The location is perfect and Marisa discovers she can order groceries to be delivered, so she doesn’t need to leave her little haven.
The only rub is her next door neighbor, a huge Russian who gives piano lessons. The fact that the wall between the two cottages is paper-thin means that Marisa can hear everything, every note that is played on the piano, clearly. During the day she manages to deal with the noise, but at night is when the pianist, Alexei, plays loud, discordant music with great passion. Music that frightens and horrifies Marisa. She finally sends him a note asking him not to play at night, and he complies.
The two neighbors live side by side, not talking, not communicating, until a terrible storm approaches. The storm threatens to destroy the causeway that connects Mount Polbearne with the mainland, a causeway that has stood for centuries. The villagers come together to try to save their road, and Marisa must decide if she is going to help or do what she has been doing — stay alone and isolated up on her hill — and ignore the needs of those who have been kind and supportive to her.
From the onset, we are engrossed in Marisa’s life. It’s fascinating learning about her job as registrar and what that entails, especially as it’s so different from anything we have in the US. We also sympathize with her when her grandfather dies suddenly, and it’s fascinating to see Italy from Marisa’s eyes as she thinks about her childhood visits there and eventually Skypes with her grandmother. We learn about the rhythms of small town life in Italy, and we can all but smell the herbs and lemon and garlic and taste the rich pasta dishes and pizza that Marisa and her grandmother prepare.
Colgan poignantly and lovingly explores mental illness as we see both Marisa’s struggle to return to normal life and how her therapist, working remotely, tries to help her. We see how mental illness can destroy any semblance of a normal life and how well-meaning people might offer support. Marisa romanticizes the Italy she remembers from her childhood visits, but when push comes to shove, she realizes that she’s British at heart and that’s where she belongs. Colgan also writes beautifully and humorously about friendship and about romance. We see how the villagers come together in times of need; how Polly and Huckle are kind and generous, but how even hard-working families sometimes just need a bit of extra support; and how sometimes romance can sneak up even between unlikely people.
The setting is certainly part of the charm of this series, and those who want to experience something like the fictional Mount Polbearne might want to explore the real St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Just like its fictional counterpart, there is a church at the top of the hill. Colgan writes, “the old church, half ruined, that had sat at the very top for hundreds and hundreds of years, set above a winding, motley collection of slightly drunkenly leaning cottages, made of the gray slate native to the area…”
Another aspect of Colgan’s writing not to be dismissed is her humor. Polly and Huckle’s children, precocious to say the least, lead us to some truly funny situations, as does Polly’s precious rescued puffin, Neil. We also revisit Polly and Huckle’s old friends, and we chuckle at Reuben’s antics and the half-birthday for his eight-year-old with ships, a concert, and a wayward snake. An unforgettable setting, quirky characters, and food for thought are all guaranteed.