Upbeat fiction

I have been enjoying an interlude of positive stories this week while I work hard on some paintings. It seems like I can’t read anything too taxing while I’m focused on making art, so I put aside the dystopian sequel, the historical fiction about a difficult period, and the literary masterpiece waiting my attention and instead checked out two Jenny Colgan books from the library. One (yay) was the third in her series about the village of Kirrinfeif, on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, and the other is (as far as I know) a stand-alone.

500 Miles From You takes us back to the site made famous by Nina, the former librarian from Birmingham who lost her job, impulsively bought a van from a couple of old codgers, and turned it into a traveling bookshop with a base in the Scottish countryside. The second book brought Londoner Zoe and her son, Hari, in answer to an advertisement for a nanny, to a grand baronial house on the lake, with a family of unruly children needing to be tamed.

Both Zoe and Nina make cameo appearances in this one, which is about Lissa, a nurse for the NHS in London who is suffering painfully from PTSD after witnessing a shocking crime. She is determined to keep on with her job, but her supervisor realizes she needs a complete break with everything familiar while she heals, and arranges for a swap. Cormac, a nurse practitioner in Kirrinfeif, is restless and up for a change, so he moves into Lissa’s nurse’s housing in London for a three-month upgrade on his skills, while Lissa retreats to the eerily quiet town on the loch and tries to get her feet back under her. As they trade files, write emails, and text one another for updates on the patients they have inherited, they develop an unexpectedly close rapport, each of them wondering if it will become something more, once they finally meet.

This was nicely told, and I enjoyed several aspects of it quite a lot. Although both her other books touched on this aspect, Lissa’s and Cormac’s experiences really point up the difference between living in an anonymous city where you avoid the glances of others, don’t speak on the subway or in the elevator, and bolt your doors at the first sound of trouble on the street, vs. in a small town where everyone knows you (and probably knows too much of your personal business), greets you, sees you, and expects you to run out your front door to help if you know someone is in need.

I also liked the gentle and sympathetic treatment of mental health, and the truths about how thoroughly and even devastatingly we are affected by our experiences, sometimes without even realizing the damage until someone helps us figure it out.

These are definitely “formula” books, but they are intelligent, quirky, and interesting. In Colgan’s case, the formula seems
to be:

  1. Move to Scotland;
  2. Fall in love with somebody there;
  3. Find some kind of work that expresses your best self;
  4. Never go “home” to [fill in the ugly depressing dirty dangerous big city here].

Every time I read one, I think, “I’m down with that!”

The stand-alone is Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. I worry a little when I read a Colgan “single” that I won’t like it; I read her first-ever novel, Amanda’s Wedding, which made me tell everyone to avoid all books before 2012 and stick to the warm-hearted series of series about finding your place in life and making good. This one violated my rule, having been published in 2009, but it had the recent re-release date on it and I was fooled into believing it was new!

It was better than Amanda’s Wedding, but not nearly as good as her later books. The reason I disliked her first book so much is that the “women” in it were billed as charming wisecrackers but were, in reality, just mean girls. I could find nothing to like about them for a good part of the book, and the fact that they were out to stop someone even meaner than themselves from marrying their friend for his money and title didn’t endear them to me until the absolute end, and not much then.

In Diamonds, the mean girls make a reappearance, and the protagonist, Sophie, starts out as one of them. They are all in a set of shallow, entitled rich people who don’t acknowledge anyone below a certain level of money, status, or fashion sense. Fortunately (for the reader, not for her), Sophie almost immediately loses her protected status and her allowance (via the 2008 crash) and has to fend for herself for the first time in her life. She rents a room in an apartment with four guys and, in lieu of a deposit, she agrees as her contribution to clean their truly disgusting habitat. The mishaps that ensue when this person whose morning latte used to arrive on her nightstand every morning courtesy of a housekeeper has to figure out how to scrub a toilet, clean an oven, and cook something are fairly entertaining, as is her pursuit of a paying job; and the romantic relationships on offer also spice up the narrative. I still didn’t care for the mean-girl setting or her continued interactions with her former so-called friends, but having this be about someone who conquers that, even if it’s not initially by choice, made it way more palatable.

I enjoyed my sojourn with Colgan so much that I have now moved on to another series by Phillipa Ashley, set in Cornwall. Those other books will have to wait yet a while longer.

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