Jenny Colgan’s books are predictable, but we like them — a lot — nonetheless. We know that in the pages of her books, we are treated to a “vacation” of sorts in whatever exotic locale she chooses (although if you live in Edinburgh, it’s not quite so exotic), wherein ordinary people will have extraordinary adventures and end up the better for it. And those adventures aren’t epic and huge, but small events that serve to change the lives of the people involved.
In “The Christmas Bookshop,” we meet Carmen Hogan, whose life, she feels, has always been overshadowed by that of her older sister, Sofia, who excelled in school, became a successful lawyer, married a handsome successful lawyer, had three children, and lives a perfect life in Edinburgh. Carmen, on the other hand, did not go to university, does not have a successful career, and does not even have a boyfriend, successful or not. She still lives in the small town where the girls grew up, works in the local department store, and will be losing that job quite soon. She ends up back living with her parents—miserable and making them miserable.
We first meet her as she is fending off her mother’s query about Christmas. For heaven’s sake, it’s still summer! Who knows what she might be up to by the holidays? Perhaps she’ll have a boyfriend, and they’ll go somewhere exotic and warm for a vacation. She hates going to her sister’s, where she feels inferior and doesn’t feel any connection to her nieces and nephew. In fact, she’s been a pretty absent aunt, not even sending a card for birthdays or special celebrations.
When Carmen’s mother asks Sofia to help Carmen find a job, Sofia thinks of a client in need. Mr. McCredie is the owner of a bookstore that is failing spectacularly. He inherited a decent estate from his parents but through neglect and disinclination to properly manage the assets, he’s in trouble. Sofia tells him that if he can show a profit by Christmas, he will be able to sell the business as a going concern and at least have some profit rather than just losing it all. Sofia thinks that Carmen, who worked in sales, might be able to help him spruce things up and make a profit.
Things don’t start off well. Sofia has put Carmen in the basement, sleeping in the small room next to where the nanny sleeps. The beautiful, pristine guest room on the upper level is not offered. Carmen also realizes that she’s expected to help with the children when the nanny, a yoga-and-meditation-obsessed university student, is at class. Skylar, the student-nanny, is officious and annoying. But she’s good with the three children, so Carmen tries to get along. Getting along with the three children is much easier than expected, and Carmen feels a special connection with the youngest, Phoebe. She’s a bit bullied by her perfect older sister, Pippa, and a bit chubby and unkempt, and reminds Carmen a bit of herself dealing with her perfect older sister, Sofia.
This is not a mystery or thriller. There are no twists or turns. There is just a sweet parade of characters along the beautifully described old section of Edinburgh. As with all of Colgan’s books, there is joy reading her detailed narrative about the shops and the charming streets, the huge Ormiston yew (an actual ancient tree that might be a thousand years old), the bitterly cold weather, and the camaraderie of the shopkeepers. Colgan’s writing is gentle and tender as we witness the growing affection Carmen feels for Oke, whom she mistakes at first for a struggling student because he doesn’t even have a proper winter coat. In addition to lovely plots and characters and settings, Colgan also has an affecting way with words. I’m struck by some of her beautiful, often metaphorical, phrasing: “Carmen measured her days in books.” And there’s humor. For example, during the first children’s read aloud at the bookstore, Carmen reads the story of The Little Match Girl, not realizing that at the end, when the little girl selling matches dies from hypothermia, the children are going to be upset. So she quickly glances through the rest of the book and sees another story, “‘The Snow Queen,’ but as soon as she picked it up and read a line about shards of ice entering people’s eyeballs, she decided that on balance discretion was the better part of valor.”
At the heart of the story are the important connections that we make with others and the reality that we don’t have just the family we were born into; we also have the family that we create through those we come to love. And in every charming Colgan story, we end up feeling that those characters who grace the pages have become so familiar and dear to us that they ARE family.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.