The back list
There are those authors you discover by reading something they have just written and then, to your delight, you find out that they have been writing for years or even decades before you came across them. You eagerly anticipate exploring their “back list” to soak up every word this newly favorite writer penned, and as you proceed from first book to last, you are so happy to immerse yourself in their stories.
Then there are the authors you discover by reading their most popular work, but when you follow it up by seeking out the back list, yikes! you realize that some writers are on their game from the beginning, while others are definitely a work in progress.
My recent experience with the books of Jenny Colgan was on the median between these two extremes. I began with her delightful wish-fulfillment story, The Little Shop of Happily Ever After, otherwise known in America as The Bookshop on the Corner, published in 2016, and was hooked. What unemployed librarian wouldn’t love a tale about a book-lover who buys a big van, fills it with remaindered books from her now-closed library, and hocks them to the locals all over the wilds of Scotland, all while experiencing a new lifestyle and possibly even falling in love?
I read The Café by the Sea and its two sequels, the books set in the Beach Street Bakery and the ones about the Cupcake Café, and followed those with The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris. All similarly transformative (exchanging dull or stressful lifestyles for long-held dream jobs), all fun, all sweet, all entertaining, all good. Great characters, luminous settings, not-too-cloying love story elements.
Then, while waiting for her new book to come out this summer, I ventured further into the back list, and read her first, Amanda’s Wedding, published in 2000. The plot, when you read the synopsis, isn’t bad: Melanie and Fran, longtime friends who suffered at the hands of their frenemy Amanda throughout their school years, discover that Amanda is about to wed one of the nicest guys they’ve ever met, Fraser McConnell. Apart from such amiability being sacrificed to the nastiest piece of work in London, the friends discover that Amanda is marrying him not for his kindness and sweet nature but because he has just unexpectedly become a Scottish laird, and Amanda is social climbing for all she’s worth. So Fran and Mel decide to try a few acts of sabotage to get poor Fraser out of Amanda’s clutches.
The problem wasn’t with the plot, but with the execution. Colgan portrayed her protagonists in such a way as to make you wonder why anyone would find them either lovable or friend-worthy. Everyone in this book (except Fraser) is mean and snarky, not to mention frivolous, loose, and drunk most of the time. Amanda may have been the villain, but the contrast between her and everyone else in the book wasn’t great enough for anyone to buy it. My response upon finishing it was, “I’m so glad I read some of her later, truly delightful books before I got around to this first one, because I probably would have quit halfway through and never gone back.” It exhibited glimmers of the traits that make her other books winners, but not enough to notice if you weren’t already familiar with those.
After that, I decided to jump forward a few years and try again, with The Boy I Loved Before (2004). Flora, all grown up (she’s 32), in a long-term relationship with a “nice” man named Olly, and working for an accountancy firm, sees the writing on the wall when she attends her best friend Tashy’s wedding, and thinks to herself, Is this all there is? So as Tashy cuts the cake, Flora wishes she could just go back and be 16 again. Part of this has to do with a high school boyfriend who was a couple of years older than she was and walked off without a backward look after a year of being “in love,” but most of it has to do with not wanting the boring life she has chosen.
So she gets her wish; but no self-respecting fan of time travel or swapped bodies stories would put up with the convoluted (and ridiculous) way in which the change is made. The plotting is so inconsistent, inventing things to solve problems as they come up, that the only response you’re left with is “C’mon!” I enjoyed moments here and there, and some of the characterizations were fun, but for me this would be/would have been another “skip it.”
Finally, reminding myself sternly of how much I had enjoyed her later works, I moved up in time again to 2012, and assayed Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’s Sweet Shop of Dreams. It did, after all, have a title similar to those other books I had enjoyed; and I reasoned that Colgan had had eight years of writing other stories to improve, so I took another chance.
This one finally paid off. Rosie is living in London with her lazy and passive but pleasant and familiar boyfriend, Gerard. She’s a charge nurse, but has been laid off from full-time and is working short contracts at the moment. Her mother contacts her to say that Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian is in trouble. Lilian has been the purveyor of sweets from a charming little shop in a small country village for most of her life, and has always been fiercely independent, but now she has aged beyond the point where she can do it alone. Rosie’s mom wants Rosie to go there, sort out the shop, the house, and Lilian, and enact the hard decision to sell the properties and put Lilian in a retirement home. Rosie reluctantly acquiesces to this plan, partly because she feels like a change (and some time away from Gerard) would do her good; but of course, nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to. Lilian isn’t as compliant about her future as Rosie’s mother had indicated, and the disheveled charm of the shop and its environs gradually work magic on the relationship between the great-aunt and the great-niece.
I thought this was one of Colgan’s best. I liked that it wasn’t the usual sudden life transformation (as happens in most of her books that I have enjoyed) but began as a result of Rosie’s reluctant good deed. I liked that possible love interests weren’t obvious. I really liked the flashbacks into the aunt’s history, and the relationship that evolved between the two women. The sweet shop produced a truly sweet and beguiling book.
So if you have tried the earlier works and decided they weren’t for you, take another look; there are at least a dozen definitely worthy of your time.
I have never thought of myself as a romance reader (apart from Georgette Heyer Regency Romance novels, which stand alone!), but my friend Kim surprised me by referring to these as romances. When I debated her on that, her response was that she thought of these as “cozy reads,” like you find in the mystery genre. In cozy mysteries, the story is as much about the quirky characters (like Maisie Dobbs or the unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) and quaint settings as it is about the murder. I can definitely see what Kim means: The reason I like Colgan’s books is that most of them portray a woman who is in a rut, and who musters her courage to get out of it when she has to choose between safety and risk-taking. All of the books have a romantic element contained within them, but the happily-ever-after isn’t just about finding a mate, it’s about finding a life.