The Mure series by Jenny Colgan: The story so far (books 1 – 4)

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite go-to author. Her books have heart and depth, but even at their saddest, never leave you feeling down for long. Her best, in my opinion, are the stories set in small communities, where an outsider can make a big difference, or where someone returning home realizes all over again where they truly belong.

Which brings me to the Mure series — books set on the fictional island of Mure, located off the mainland of northern Scotland. Mure is a small, close-knit farming community, where everyone knows everyone else, and their parent and grandparents and all the preceding generations…

I originally read the first book in the series, The Cafe by the Sea, back in 2017. This year, I’ve picked the series back up, revisiting book #1 via audio, then continuing onward through the series. With the 5th book due for release in mid-June 2022, I thought I’d share my thoughts and reactions to the story so far:

Title: The Cafe by the Sea
Published: 2017
Length: 416 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

The Cafe by the Sea introduces us to Flora McKenzie, a hard-working but not particularly happy young woman slaving away in a London office, with a hopeless mad crush on her gorgeous boss and too much sadness associated with her home back in Mure to even consider returning there… until a business deal her firm is engaged to handle forces her back to Mure anyway, in company with her unattainable boss Joel. There, Flora must confront the family she fled years earlier in the wake of shared sorrow that she just couldn’t bear.

The more time she spends on Mure, the more she starts to realize how much she lost by leaving, and that perhaps the only way for her family to heal is to be together.

I love the depiction of life on this Scottish island, the big, loud family Flora reconnects with, and the million small details the author uses to show the personalities and quirks of this tight-knit community. It’s all lovely, and although I had some doubts about the central romance, I still got completely caught up in the sunshine and joy of this sweet story. (Plus! So much good food. And there are even recipes — in this book and each one in the series).

Title: The Endless Beach
Published: 2018
Length: 416 pages
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When Flora MacKenzie traded her glum career in London for the remote Scottish island of Mure, she never dreamed that Joel—her difficult, adorable boss—would follow. Yet now, not only has Flora been reunited with her family and opened a charming café by the sea, but she and Joel are taking their first faltering steps into romance.

With Joel away on business in New York, Flora is preparing for the next stage in her life. And that would be…? Love? She’s feeling it. Security? In Joel’s arms, sure. Marriage? Not open to discussion.

In the meanwhile, Flora is finding pleasure in a magnificent sight: whales breaking waves off the beaches of Mure. But it also signals something less joyful. According to local superstition, it’s an omen—and a warning that Flora’s future could be as fleeting as the sea-spray… 

Here in book #2, the storytelling and perspectives open up beyond just Flora’s story, and that’s a very, very good thing. Not that Flora’s piece of the tale isn’t interesting or enjoyable! But now, in The Endless Beach, we get to spend more time with the people who’d only existed as background or secondary characters in The Cafe by the Sea, and this helps the overall story feel more encompassing and lived in.

Beyond seeing Flora and Joel’s story progress, as they deal with his emotional fallout from childhood trauma and try to find a way forward together, we also have Flora’s brother Fintan’s romance with the billionaire who’s bought key property on the island and wants to make it his forever home; Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s granted asylum by the UK in exchange for his placement at the clinic in Mure, who yearns for news of his missing boys and wife, yet is also drawn to the island’s kind schoolteacher Lorna; and one of the most adorable characters ever, Flora’s 4-year-old niece Agot (who might, in other author’s hands, come across as annoying, but here is just utterly delightful).

The Endless Beach has an interwoven plot that includes plenty of joy, but also true moments of tragedy and sorrow. We go deeper into the characters’ lives, and Saif’s family’s struggles are particularly sad and emotional.

I won’t say why, but the ending absolutely knocked me sideways with an emotional blow that I did not see coming. While many of the storylines are left with hopeful loose ends by the close of The Endless Beach, there’s one main storyline that can only end with tragedy, and it really upset me (which just shows how invested I’ve become in these characters).

I should add a note there that the audiobooks are a treat to listen to — so highly recommended!

Title: Christmas on the Island
Published: 2018
Length: 352 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Christmas on the remote Scottish island of Mure is bleak, stark — and incredibly beautiful.

It’s a time for hunkering down, getting cosy in front of whisky barrel wood fires, and enjoying a dram with the people you love — unless, of course, you’re accidentally pregnant to your ex-boss, and don’t know how to tell him. In what should be the season of peace and goodwill on earth, will Joel think Flora is a bearer of glad tidings?

Meanwhile Saif, the doctor and refugee from war-torn Syria is trying to enjoy his first western Christmas with his sons — but without his missing wife. Can the little family possibly find comfort and joy?

Travel to the beautiful northern edge of the world and join the welcoming community of Mure for an unforgettable Christmas

The 3rd book in the series picks up just a few months after book #2, with Christmas on its way, but not everyone particularly up for the celebration.

As the synopsis reveals, Flora is pregnant and isn’t sure how the news will go over. Joel isn’t just any man about to hear about an unexpected baby — he’s a damaged soul who grew up in foster care and has a very hard time with emotions and with the concept of family. He loves Flora, but the idea of parenthood is terrifying, and Flora knows there’s a good chance he’ll bolt rather than face the reality of their new lives.

Flora’s brother Fintan married the man of his dreams in the 3rd book, but now faces a huge, devastating loss. To make matters worse, his husband’s long-estranged (and pretty awful) American brother shows up on Mure to make sure the family gets their hands on Colton’s money.

And as Saif settles more into island life with his two boys, the ongoing question of whether his wife survived the terrors of war haunts him deeply. His loyalties are torn, and while the boys seem to finally be adapting to their new home, he wonders if they might not be better off moving to Glasgow and starting over yet again.

The conflicts and crises in Christmas on the Island continue to be deeply emotional, and there are tragedies in store for at least some of the characters. Fortunately, Jenny Colgan’s light touch with her characters means that there are joyful moments as well, and she sprinkles in humor and silliness just often enough to keep the overall tone from becoming completely morose.

I don’t typically read Christmas-themed books, but when it comes to this series, I simply couldn’t not continue. Christmas on the Island is a lovely, engaging read, and at this point, I’m so invested in these characters’ lives that there was zero chance I wouldn’t pick this one up. Given the Christmas title, it’s clear from the start that the holiday spirit will prevail. Not everyone gets a completely happy ending, but they do all get peace and some measure of hope.

Title: Christmas at the Island Hotel
Published: 2020
Length: 352 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Another heartfelt and delightful Christmas tale from the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Bookshop on the Corner and Christmas on the Island.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the setting of Christmas on the Island and Endless Beach for a heartwarming new novel celebrating the season, and Scotland.

On the tiny, beautiful, and remote island of Mure, halfway between Scotland and Norway, a new hotel opening is a big event. New mother Flora MacKenzie and her brother Fintan are working themselves half to death to get it ready in time for Christmas. 

The new hotel’s impressive kitchens throw together two unlikely new friends: Isla Gregor is the hardworking young girl who has been a waitress in the island’s cafe, dreaming of a bigger, better life now that she’s at a proper fancy hotel. Konstantin Pederson is working his way up in the hotel’s kitchens too…but he is also, secretly, the only son of the Duke of Utsire. Konstantin has been sent to learn what it is to work hard for a living, before receiving his inheritance. Although he’s initially resentful, the place grows on him; he has never met anyone quite like Isla and her fellow Murians before. 

As the island’s residents and special VIP guests gather for the hotel’s grand opening gala, Christmas is in the air. But so are more than a few small-town secrets…

Well… by the 4th book of this series, it’s clear that the reason to read it is to spend more time with beloved characters in this cozy, lovely setting.

Not all that much actually happens in Christmas at the Island Hotel. A year has past since the sad events that ended book #3. Flora now has a baby and is supposedly on maternity leave, but she’s actually itching for work and a project. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Joel, initially so reluctant to become a father, is totally besotted by their infant son, and it’s quite adorable.

Other stories progress, and new characters are introduced. As the synopsis indicates, a spoiled Norwegian aristocrat is being punished by this father by being sent off to Mure to learn what it means to actually work and not rely on servants. Konstantin is a petulant brat as the story opens, but of course, his experiences on Mure transform him, especially once he falls for a shy island girl and starts to see the beauty of this strange place he’s landed.

Additionally, the brash French chef who takes on the hotel’s restaurant is arrogant, demanding, and absolutely does not fit in on the island, and yet he ends up being just what they need. Meanwhile, the slow burn love story of Saif and Lorna continues to simmer, with some new developments adding tension and confusion to their already shaky relationship.

I enjoyed the book, but it did feel a little diluted — too much time spent on the new characters and the kitchen shenanigans, not enough on the characters we already know and love. Still, it’s always wonderful to spend time on Mure!

An audiobook note: After loving the narrator of the first three audiobooks (Sarah Barron), it was a little disconcerting to switch to a new narrator for book #4 (Eilidh Beaton). I did get used to her after a while, and ended up liking her narration too — but at the start, it was quite a jolt!

Wrapping it all up…

Jenny Colgan’s books are always a delight. What I love about this series is how completely immersed we become in the life of the island. While Flora is the center of the series, over the course of these books we become involved with her big family as well as her various neighbors, friends, and sometime-rivals.

The island is filled with quirky people whose seemingly simple lives offer entertainment as well as complications. While the 4th book feels more light-weight than the others, with fewer deep emotional moments, it’s still lovely.

Book #5, An Island Wedding, will be released next month (publication date June 21, 2022. And while I have an ARC already, I think I may hold off until the release date so I can listen to the audiobook!

I highly recommend this wonderful, feel-good series. There are laughs and tears… and even recipes!

Book Review: The Emma Project by Sonali Dev

Title: The Emma Project
Series: The Rajes
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Emma gets a fresh Indian-American twist from award-winning author Sonali Dev in her heartwarmingly irresistible Jane Austen inspired rom com series.

No one can call Vansh Raje’s life anything but charmed. Handsome—Vogue has declared him California’s hottest single—and rich enough to spend all his time on missions to make the world a better place. Add to that a doting family and a contagiously sunny disposition and Vansh has made it halfway through his twenties without ever facing anything to throw him off his admittedly spectacular game.

A couple years from turning forty, Knightlina (Naina) Kohli has just gotten out of a ten-year-long fake relationship with Vansh’s brother and wants only one thing from her life…fine, two things. One, to have nothing to do with the unfairly blessed Raje family ever again. Two, to bring economic independence to millions of women in South Asia through her microfinance foundation and prove her father wrong about, well, everything.

Just when Naina’s dream is about to come to fruition, Vansh Raje shows up with his misguided Emma Project… And suddenly she’s fighting him for funding and wondering if a friends-with-benefits arrangement that’s as toe-curlingly hot as it is fun is worth risking her life’s work for.

The Emma Project is the 4th book in author Sonali Dev’s Jane Austen-inspired series about the powerful, wealthy Raje family. The Rajes, descended from Indian royalty, are fabulously rich and highly influential, especially now that their son Yash has been elected California’s newest governor. (See Incense and Sensibility for Yash’s story).

In The Emma Project, the youngest of the Raje clan takes center stage. 26-year-old Vansh is the “prince” of the family, extremely good-looking and pampered by all of his older sisters and cousins. Vansh has spent the last several years flitting around the world, from project to project lending a hand to all sorts of socially responsible causes, but never settling on just one thing.

After working to support Yash’s campaign, Vansh decides to stick around for a bit, and soon catches the attention of a powerful tech billionaire who wants to fund a project for Vansh — by pulling funding from Naina’s important work. Naina’s work is her whole life, especially since her association with the Rajes ended with public scandal after her fake romance with Yash came to light. (It’s complicated; again, see Yash’s story in the previous book).

Naina is furious over the loss of funding, and she accuses Vansh of engaging in an “Emma project” — basically, like Austen’s Emma, taking on a project for the sake of making himself feel good and alleviating some boredom, but lacking a true commitment or perspective on what others may need.

Over time, Vansh and Naina begin to work together, and become aware of a crazy hot chemistry between them too… but with Naina essentially ostracized by Vansh’s family and being burdened by all sorts of relationship issues due to growing up with an abusive father, any sort of romantic future between the two seems highly unlikely.

Except… there’s that chemisty to deal with, and they just can’t avoid it for long.

Perspective shift between Vansh (the Emma character) and Naina (Knightley), so we get to understand each character’s feelings and why they behave the way they do. All the various Rajes make appearances, often to meddle and complicate situations even further, and there’s a sub-plot about Vansh’s cousin Esha that’s a weird distraction from the main story (and makes very little sense), which seems to be a stand-in for the Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill storyline from Emma.

I’ve enjoyed most of the books in the Rajes series, but this one was was only so-so. The characters’ inner lives, especially Naina’s, come across as overwrought after a while. The endless ruminations on feelings about relationships and love truly started to get on my nerves. I also couldn’t understand why the Raje family treated Naina the way they did — from a plot perspective, it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Vansh and Naina have a lot of heat between them, which fine, I’m happy two adults are enjoying themselves so much! However, there’s a restaurant scene that absolutely made me roll my eyes over its ridiculousness, and I had a hard time suspending my utter disbelief enough to get through the rest of the book.

From the author’s notes at the end, it sounds like The Emma Project is the final Raje book. Too bad — I guess we won’t be getting Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey retellings! As a whole, I’ve enjoyed this series, even though I ended up not as engaged with this last book.

Audiobook Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Title: By the Book
Series: Meant to Be, #2
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Narrator: Sarah Hollis
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 42 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.

All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?

But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn’t there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

Everybody, sing along!

There’s something sweet and almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
And now he’s dear and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

In By the Book, Disney publishing comes through with another endearing fairy tale adaptation, thanks to the clever imaginings of Jasmine Guillory. It’s Beauty and the Beast with a modern, grown-up spin, set in the world of publishing, and it’s all very, very charming.

For Izzy, every day is like the one before…

When she first landed her job at TAOAT Publishing (that’s Tale As Old As Time, of course), she was starry-eyed and thrilled to finally be entering the world of books. But a couple of years on, she’s stuck as an editorial assistant, with a boss who doesn’t take the time to give feedback, and a coworker who slyly undermines Izzy’s confidence under the guise of sympathy.

While attending an industry conference in LA, Izzy gets her moment to do something bold: Her boss is frustrated by celebrity Beau Towers, who has yet to deliver even a word of his memoir under contract. He refuses to even respond to emails. Izzy boldly offers to knock on the door of his Santa Barbara mansion and offer her assistance in person.

Once she arrives, she’s wowed by Beau’s gorgeous home — so beautiful it’s practically enchanted! — but less impressed by his surly demeanor. Still, by the time their initial confrontation takes place, it’s too late for her to make her flight back to New York, so she’s stuck as a guest for the night. Her room is gorgeous, and she falls so deeply in love with the luxurious bathtub that she feels like it’s talking to her.

I talk to inanimate objects like my teacup and the candlestick because Beau Towers doesn’t talk to me, and I feel like at any moment the teacup and candlestick will start, like singing and dancing for me.

By the next day, Beau grudgingly agrees to let Izzy stay and offer him writing pep talks, and they soon settle into a routine of writing together in his vast and breathtaking library.

This library was all her library dreams come true. […] Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined every wall, with those rolling ladders so you could reach each and every book.

Beau’s assistant cooks up amazing food for them, and Izzy even grudgingly tries the gray stuff — an energy drink — and it’s delicious!

FYI, Beau’s wifi password is Lum1ere!

Are you singing along yet? Don’t worry, I found myself breaking into song throughout this adorable book…

Of course, there are ups and downs, disagreements and misunderstandings, but Izzy comes to realize that underneath his beastly behavior, Beau actually is quite a prince. Izzy’s warmth and kindness melt his heart, and by the time she comes swooping down the main staircase in a long yellow dress, he’s completely smitten.

The romance is sweet, but maybe because of the fairy tale element, it’s also completely predictable. Of course it’s all going to work out! Of course they’ll find happiness despite their differences! Izzy’s career challenges are neatly resolved by the end as well, and every aspect of the story gets tied up with a pretty HEA bow.

I enjoyed the flirtation, the California scenery, and the glimpse into the world of publishing. I did find the stakes fairly low throughout the book, and the revelation of the bad guy’s deviousness is completely predictable (although this Gaston stand-in does not brag about his chest hair, spitting abilities, or use of antlers for his interior décor, and no one’s actual life is on the line, so he’s not quite as despicable as the Disney version).

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s most well-done and breezy, although the narrator’s habit of laughing whenever the lines in the books say “she laughed” got on my nerves after a while. Ignoring that, though, it was a really fun listen, and didn’t require a huge amount of focus or concentration in order to follow the story.

There are a ton of cute little nods to the Disney movie — from someone commenting that they feel like they should be wearing a tea cozy to Beau telling Izzy to “be my guest” to the flight attendant named Angela offering tea and cookies– and these all made for sweet giggle-inducing interludes throughout the book.

I mean, in the end, what’s not to enjoy about a Beauty and the Beast retelling? After all, it is…

… a tale as old as time.

As for what’s next in this series…

Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t wait to find out which adaptation is in store for us!

Book Review: Something Wilder by Christina Lauren

Title: Something Wilder
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Growing up the daughter of notorious treasure hunter and absentee father Duke Wilder left Lily without much patience for the profession…or much money in the bank. But Lily is nothing if not resourceful, and now uses Duke’s coveted hand-drawn maps to guide tourists on fake treasure hunts through the red rock canyons of Utah. It pays the bills but doesn’t leave enough to fulfill her dream of buying back the beloved ranch her father sold years ago, and definitely not enough to deal with the sight of the man she once loved walking back into her life with a motley crew of friends ready to hit the trails. Frankly, Lily would like to take him out into the wilderness—and leave him there.

Leo Grady knew mirages were a thing in the desert, but they’d barely left civilization when the silhouette of his greatest regret comes into focus in the flickering light of the campfire. Ready to leave the past behind him, Leo wants nothing more than to reconnect with his first and only love. Unfortunately, Lily Wilder is all business, drawing a clear line in the sand: it’s never going to happen.

But when the trip goes horribly and hilariously wrong, the group wonders if maybe the legend of the hidden treasure wasn’t a gimmick after all. There’s a chance to right the wrongs—of Duke’s past and their own—but only if Leo and Lily can confront their history and work together. Alone under the stars in the isolated and dangerous mazes of the Canyonlands, Leo and Lily must decide whether they’ll risk their lives and hearts on the adventure of a lifetime.

Christina Lauren books are always great fun, but Something Wilder didn’t quite reach the enjoyable heights of some of their previous books — at least, not for me.

In Something Wilder, we get a second chance romance as Lily and Leo are reunited after an abrupt separation ten years earlier left each of them feeling dumped by the other — a situation based on misunderstandings and missed communications, not actual intent. The truth of the matter is, neither has ever gotten over the loss of their first and only true love.

But time marches on, and Lily is left making ends meet — barely — by taking urban cowboy wannabes out on adventure tours through the canyons of the west, recreating old Wild West outlaw routes and seeking out (fictitious) hidden treasures. When Manhattan-based coder Leo sets off on his annual guy trip with a bunch of college buddies, he doesn’t know exactly where they’re headed — but when he arrives at the cowboy camp, all his old memories and feeling come rushing back as soon as he sees Lily.

Once Lily and Leo are thrown together, they face the fact that they’ll be spending the next week in close quarters. Super awkward! Fortunately, their resentment and pain are soon confronted — I was glad that it didn’t take them the whole book to finally clear the air and understand why things happened the way they did.

The plot of Something Wilder is built about the adventure trip that Lily and her best friend Nicole lead the guys on. Lily’s business is leading groups on treasure hunts on horseback, solving puzzles and discovering a hidden “treasure” that she plants for them — essentially, a Wild West scavenger hunt.

Lily’s father Duke was a famous expert on the mysteries of the Old West, and one of the biggest legends he focused on was about Butch Cassidy, who was rumored to have stashed away his loot from all his various heists somewhere along the region’s remote trails. Legend has it that this stash is still out there, waiting to be found. Duke devoted most of his life to tracking down the loot, and his obsession made him an absentee father who was never around when his daughter needed him. Lily always resented Duke’s determined focus on treasure hunting, but now, Butch Cassidy’s long-lost riches may be the only hope she has left if she wants to save her family ranch.

In this mix of these Wild West shenanigans are some modern day bad guys. One of the members of Leo’s group is an extremely unlikeable uber-macho type who thrives on conspiracy theories and online craziness, and he’s convinced that the treasure is real and that Lily is the key to finding it. Things take a turn toward gritty violence once his true goals become clear, and from there, the plot turns into a desperate adventure tale. (Note: the synopsis says the trip goes “horribly and hilariously wrong” — no idea what whoever wrote that blurb thought was hilarious. Not at all a funny situation.)

While there’s romance, once Leo and Lily clear the air and recognize that their feelings are still simmering not too far below the surface, the main arc of the plot is about the treasure hunt. And I gotta say… I just wasn’t that into it. Yes, it’s fun to see the city slickers on horseback, and the descriptions of the canyons made me want to go on an adventure of my own — but the plot is much too much about the heist and the conspiracy and incipient danger and violence. Not really my kind of story.

A few of the characters are fun, but several are pure cookie-cutter assholes, and the story itself was too action-focused to suit my tastes. The parts I liked best had to do with Lily and Leo, their family stories and complications, and their give and take about whether renewing their relationship was even a possibility. And yes, I enjoyed their steamy reunion too — romantic and sexy without being overly graphic or detailed.

Christina Lauren’s books are always enjoyable, and I breezed through Something Wilder in about a day and a half. The adventure plot wasn’t to my taste, but it’s still a fun read, and I can easily recommend this book for a sunny day of beach reading.

Book Review: The Summer Place by Jennifer Weiner

Title: The Summer Place
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When her twenty-two-year-old stepdaughter announces her engagement to her pandemic boyfriend, Sarah Danhauser is shocked. But the wheels are in motion. Headstrong Ruby has already set a date (just three months away!) and spoken to her beloved safta, Sarah’s mother Veronica, about having the wedding at the family’s beach house on Cape Cod. Sarah might be worried, but Veronica is thrilled to be bringing the family together one last time before putting the big house on the market.

But the road to a wedding day usually comes with a few bumps. Ruby has always known exactly what she wants, but as the wedding date approaches, she finds herself grappling with the wounds left by the mother who walked out when she was a baby. Veronica ends up facing unexpected news, thanks to her meddling sister, and must revisit the choices she made long ago, when she was a bestselling novelist with a different life. Sarah’s twin brother, Sam, is recovering from a terrible loss, and confronting big questions about who he is—questions he hopes to resolve during his stay on the Cape. Sarah’s husband, Eli, who’s been inexplicably distant during the pandemic, confronts the consequences of a long ago lapse from his typical good-guy behavior. And Sarah, frustrated by her husband, concerned about her stepdaughter, and worn out by challenges of life during quarantine, faces the alluring reappearance of someone from her past and a life that could have been.

When the wedding day arrives, lovers are revealed as their true selves, misunderstandings take on a life of their own, and secrets come to light. There are confrontations and revelations that will touch each member of the extended family, ensuring that nothing will ever be the same.

From “the undisputed boss of the beach read” (The New York Times), The Summer Place is a testament to family in all its messy glory; a story about what we sacrifice and how we forgive. Enthralling, witty, big-hearted, and sharply observed, this is Jennifer Weiner’s love letter to the Outer Cape and the power of home, the way our lives are enriched by the people we call family, and the endless ways love can surprise us. 

Jennifer Weiner excels at depicting families in all their messy glory — day-to-day life, tensions, love, secrets, and joy — and making it all feel significant and real. In The Summer Place, we meet a large family through the eyes of each of its members, and learn how deeply secrets can run and how much damage they can do, even in a family fully of love and acceptance.

The Summer Place takes place post-pandemic. People are going out again, reuniting with far-flung family members they’ve only seen on FaceTime for two years, experiencing life outside the home and shaking off the long stagnation of quarantine.

For Sarah Levy-Weinberg, it’s a relief, but problems linger. Sarah spent the pandemic working from home alongside her endodontist husband, her stepdaughter Ruby and Ruby’s boyfriend Gabe, and her two younger boys — and the impact on her marriage has not been good. Sarah and Eli had been doing great, but something changed during these two years. Eli, once loving and attentive, has become distracted and cold, and refuses to talk to Sarah about why. It’s driving her crazy, and so are all those little habit of Eli’s that might not have bothered her so much if they weren’t stuck in the house together ALL DAY LONG.

Like his flipflops. Oh my, there’s something so real about the descriptions of Sarah being driven absolutely bonkers by hearing Eli’s slap-slapping footsteps as he paces while he works. I mean, who can’t relate to that sense of utter craziness brought on by someone else’s innocent but totally annoying habits?

When Ruby announces her engagement, the plot wheels are set in motion. The family will gather at grandmother Ronnie’s Cape Cod house for the wedding, and each person who’ll be there will be bringing secrets that they may or may not want to reveal to others.

The story is told through chapters from the points-of-view of most of the main characters, including not just Sarah, but also Ruby, Gabe, Eli, Ronnie, Sarah’s brother Sam, and more. We don’t know everything right from the start, but as the book progresses, we learn about each character’s past, the decisions that haunt them, the choices they regret, and the secrets and shame that they carry with them.

The plot is not terribly complex — this is a character-driven novel, and I enjoyed getting to know each of these people and their inner lives. We can judge characters’ actions or disagree with their choices, but through the lens of the point-of-view chapters, it’s impossible not to empathize and at least understand the reasons for what they’ve done and what they’ve hidden or given up.

There are perhaps too many coincidences in The Summer Place, which make some of the big reveals feel a bit contrived. How likely is it that these people, whose paths cross accidentally in the story, would have secret connections that go back decades? Not very… but it’s okay. Even if I had to suspend my disbelief in parts, I still really enjoyed how the various story threads were woven together to form a cohesive whole.

In each section of the book, there’s a brief interlude narrated by, of all things, the Cape Cod house itself. I’m not a fan of this kind of anthropomorphism, and thought it was a bit hokey… your mileage may vary. Thankfully, these interludes are short and don’t feel weighty, so they didn’t negatively impact my reading experience as a whole.

The Summer Place exists in the same general world as That Summer, which I absolutely loved. To be clear, The Summer Place is not a sequel and is absolutely a stand-alone… but for those who’ve read That Summer, some familiar names and places will pop out.

The Summer Place is not as emotionally impactful as That Summer, which has much heavier themes and consequences (and which I really loved). Still, I did very much enjoy The Summer Place. The characters are relatable and feel grounded in the world we know.

Families are messy. Family members can be annoying. Lives aren’t always logical, and everyone, no matter how happy or successful, carries regrets and what-ifs and secrets they’d prefer to forget about. As The Summer Place shows, even families with messy and unpredictable connections and weird communication patterns love and need each other, and if that love is strong enough, bad choices and unintended consequences won’t keep a family from coming together and sharing life’s ups and downs.

And oh, the glory of a beach house in summer! Reading this book made me yearn for a slow, unscheduled summer of my own. Beach house, swimming, good food, good books… a relaxed appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. It feels very far away from reality for me… but it’s certainly nice to dream about!

Book Review: True Biz by Sara Nović

Title: True Biz
Author: Sara Nović
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A transporting novel that follows a year of seismic romantic, political, and familial shifts for a teacher and her students at a boarding school for the deaf, from the acclaimed author of Girl at War.

True biz (adj/exclamation; American Sign Language): really, seriously, definitely, real-talk

True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another–and changed forever.

This is a story of sign language and lip-reading, cochlear implants and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy. Absorbing and assured, idiosyncratic and relatable, this is an unforgettable journey into the Deaf community and a universal celebration of human connection. 

This book was an impulse read for me… and I’m so glad I gave in to my whims! True Biz was the Hello Sunshine book club pick for April, and while I don’t always follow celebrity book clubs, I find the Reese picks often include terrific stories I might not have come across otherwise. Such is the case with True Biz.

In this excellent novel, we follow the lives of the River Valley School for the Deaf’s headmistress, a hearing woman named February whose parents were deaf, as well as several of the school’s students. As the book opens, we learn that three students have disappeared from the school, leaving their cell phones behind. This is potentially a catastrophe, and a police search is launched. From this opening, we go back six months to learn how these events unfold.

The school, located in the Ohio rust belt, has served generations of deaf students, providing a safe haven, a home, a community, and a chance for education and language not available in mainstream programs. Some of the students come from families with long histories of deafness; for others, they’re the outliers in their families, and receive varying levels of support — or sometimes, almost none at all — before coming to RVSD.

While True Biz tells a compelling story about the lives of the characters and their personal stakes and struggles, it also provides a window into the Deaf community. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been ignorant about many of the issues described in the book, and the most shocking and eye-opening for me was the discussion about language deprivation and cochlear implants.

As depicted by the characters in this book, while cochlear implants (technical devices that include a piece implanted in a baby or child’s head, that allows sound signals to bypass the ears and be received and decoded by the brain) are often seen as miraculous solutions to a problem, they represent something potentially cataclysmic to the Deaf community. As part of “fixing” deafness, the recommended approach for implanted children is to make them completely reliant on the implants so they’re forced to learn to interpret sounds and speak out loud. Often, this means denying them access to American Sign Language.

But CIs are often imperfect, and for some children, don’t work well enough for them to get by or truly learn to master verbal English. Without ASL, the children are essentially language deprived — they grow up without mastery of any language and suffer throughout their education and beyond because of this.

The other large issue with CIs seems to be the impact on the Deaf community itself. By “fixing” deafness, the devices (and those who advocate for them) seem to be pushing an agenda that erases the Deaf world, which is a culture unto itself, with a rich history and linguistic traditions.

I loved that the book includes illustrations of ASL words, as well as explanations of grammar and syntax, historical notes, and all sorts of other information about the Deaf community that I had little to no awareness of. As I said earlier, I’m somewhat embarrassed that so much of the cultural elements portrayed in this book are new to me, and that’s something I want to remedy.

A note on presentation and style: Initially, I was put off by the lack of quotation marks when characters speak — in general, a pet peeve of mine when it comes to fiction. Here, though, the stylistic choices appear to be deliberate. Depending on the placement and format of the different lines being spoken, we can tell by looking at the way the words are written whether the characters are speaking ASL or English, when a signing character finger-spells a word, and when a character misses a word that’s being spoken out loud or signed. It’s very effective and very clever.

I also want to point out that while I’ve mostly written about the issues depicted and brought to life in the book, the characters and plot are excellent and make for engrossing, compelling reading. In fact, my only complaint is that the ending felt too abrupt, as if the author simply decided to stop rather than go a little bit further in the timeline and wrap it up. I was left with questions about what comes next and feeling unsatisfied… but that’s okay.

The reading journey was enjoyable every step of the way, and I came to really care about the characters of True Biz. A lovely book — I highly recommend it.

Audiobook Review: Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quintana Albertson

Title: Ramón and Julieta
Author: Alana Quintana Albertson
Narrators:  Alexander Amado, Vanessa Vasquez
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 1, 2022
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 25 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When fate and tacos bring Ramón and Julieta together on the Day of the Dead, the star-crossed pair must make a choice: accept the bitter food rivalry that drives them apart or surrender to a love that consumes them.

Ramón Montez always achieves his goals. Whether that means collecting Ivy League degrees or growing his father’s fast-food empire, nothing sets Ramón off course. So when the sexy señorita who kissed him on the Day of the Dead runs off into the night with his heart, he determines to do whatever it takes to find her again.

Celebrity chef Julieta Campos has sacrificed everything to save her sea-to-table taqueria from closing. To her horror, she discovers that her new landlord is none other than the magnetic mariachi she hooked up with on Dia de los Muertos. Even worse, it was his father who stole her mother’s taco recipe decades ago. Julieta has no choice but to work with Ramón, the man who destroyed her life’s work–and the one man who tempts and inspires her.

As San Diego’s outraged community protests against the Taco King take-over and the divide between their families grows, Ramón and Julieta struggle to balance the rising tensions. But Ramón knows that true love is priceless and despite all of his successes, this is the one battle he refuses to lose. 

The vibrancy of Mexican culture in a San Diego neighborhood is threatened by gentrification — and in this contemporary romance version of Romeo and Juliet (spoiler alert — with a much happier ending!), a Day of the Dead meet-cute throws together members of rival families with a long, bitter history.

from the author’s website

Dia de los Muertos is a very big deal in Old Town, San Diego. Besides attracting tourists, for the Mexican community, it’s a day of beautiful traditions honoring their loved ones who’ve passed away. Julieta, chef at a popular, authentic local restaurant in Barrio Logan, plans to sell her specialty tacos at a pop-up stand at the festival, and Ramón, CEO of the multi-million-dollar family business that owns a hugely successful chain of Taco King fast food joints, is planning to schmooze up the local politicians and gain a little last-minute publicity before sealing the deal to buy an entire block of Barrio Logan.

Dressed in full Dia de los Muertos costumes and face paint, when Ramón and Julieta have a chance encounter in a garden near the festival, there’s instant attraction and a deeper connection as well — but they don’t exchange real names and can’t see one another’s faces. Tired of her responsiblities and lack of pleasure in her life, Julieta makes the impulsive decision to go home with Ramón, but once back in his La Jolla mansion, about to remove her face paint, she realizes who he really is — he’s the enemy.

Decades earlier, as Julieta’s been told countless times, her mother was a young woman selling home-made fish tacos at a stand in Mexico, when a Mexican-American student on a surfing trip during spring break fell in love with her and her tacos. He never returned as promised, but he stole her family’s secret recipe and turned it into the key to Taco King’s success. When Julieta realizes that Ramón is the son of her family’s nemesis, who profited off of her family’s recipe all these years without ever acknowledging or compensating them, she’s livid and appalled.

Things become even worse the following day when Ramon’s offer on the block in Barrio Logan is accepted. Ramón’s father plans to raise all the rents, force the existing businesses out, and replace Julieta’s lovely restaurant with a flagship location for a new Taco King. This is war! But also, this is love… because despite their stance on opposing sides of this gentrification battle, Ramón and Julieta can’t deny their feeling or their attraction for one another.

from the author’s website

I enjoyed the depiction of the close-knit community of Barrio Logan, the sense of tradition and pride in the Mexican culture of the residents, and the absolutely amazing-sounding descriptions of spices and flavors and foods. But, these great elements are in many ways background to the romance, and that’s where the book didn’t particularly work for me.

First of all, the characters: Not only is Ramón CEO of the family empire, he’s also Stanford and Harvard educated. Not only is Julieta an amazing chef, but she’s been trained at Michelin-starred restaurants. [Side note: Why does every romance novel about foodies throw around Michelin stars? Why does everyone in business need a Harvard MBA?] They’re both gorgeous and have amazing bodies, of course. They’re not just reasonably nice people who meet and connect — they’re both stellar in every way. It’s too much.

Second, I just couldn’t help cringing over their dialogue and their inner thoughts. Within seconds of meeting, Julieta is admiring how good Ramón looks in his costume, including “that huge bulge in his pants”. But don’t worry, the ogling is two-sided, as Ramón notes about Julieta: “That ass was the kind that songs were written about”.

The supposedly romantic moments are super corny, and the sexy/steamy scenes are unnecessarily specific and graphic. Then again, I recognize that preferences about graphic vs implied sex vary widely among romance readers, so while this aspect didn’t work for me, it may not be a deal-breaker for other readers.

The audiobook features different narrators for chapters from Ramón and Julieta’s perspectives, although they each still have to depict the other character whenever there are scenes together, which means there are two different voices each for Ramón and Julieta — a little weird at times, since they sound so different. It’s a light listen, and overall, the audiobook presentation is well done and entertaining.

I gave Ramón and Julieta 3 stars: I really liked the creative use of Shakespearean inspiration in telling a modern tale and the way the story honors and depicts elements of Mexican heritage and the strong sense of community. It doesn’t rise above 3 stars for me, though, because of the hokiness of the love story — which, in a romance, should be its strongest element.

Ramón and Julieta is enjoyable, despite the cringe-factor. Apparently, it’s the first in a planned series called Love and Tacos. The pieces that didn’t work for me are enough to make me doubt whether I’d want to come back for more.

Audiobook Review: If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

Title: If the Shoe Fits
Series: Meant to Be
Author: Julie Murphy
Narrator: Jen Ponton
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: August 3, 2021
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 51 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If the shoe doesn’t fit, maybe it’s time to design your own.

Cindy loves shoes. A well-placed bow or a chic stacked heel is her form of self-expression. As a fashion-obsessed plus-size woman, she can never find designer clothes that work on her body, but a special pair of shoes always fits just right.

With a shiny new design degree but no job in sight, Cindy moves back in with her stepmother, Erica Tremaine, the executive producer of the world’s biggest dating reality show. When a contestant on Before Midnight bows out at the last minute, Cindy is thrust into the spotlight. Showcasing her killer shoe collection on network TV seems like a great way to jump-start her career. And, while she’s at it, why not go on a few lavish dates with an eligible suitor?

But being the first and only fat contestant on Before Midnight turns her into a viral sensation—and a body-positivity icon—overnight. Even harder to believe? She can actually see herself falling for this Prince Charming. To make it to the end, despite the fans, the haters, and a house full of fellow contestants she’s not sure she can trust, Cindy will have to take a leap of faith and hope her heels— and her heart—don’t break in the process.

Best-selling author Julie Murphy’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is an enchanting story of self-love and believing in the happy ending each and every one of us deserves. 

If you’re looking for a feel-good modern-day fairy tale, If the Shoe Fits might be a perfect… fit. (Sorry.)

In 2020, Disney’s publishing arm announced its new series of fairy tale retellings, aimed at adult readers. With different authors writing the different installments, each book will retell a classic fairy tale as a contemporary romance. If the Shoe Fits is the first in the Meant To Be series… and I have to say, after reading this one, I’m definitely on board for more!

If the Shoe Fits is very funny, but also surprisingly emotional in key ways. Cindy is a recent graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, but after barely squeaking by on her final project, she has no immediate job or career prospects. She returns to LA to live with her stepmother and extended family, planning to nanny for the summer and hit pause for a bit… but then reality TV upends her plans.

[Side note: Why are there so many romance novels framed around TV dating shows these days? I swear this is at least the 4th I’ve read… and I’ve never watched a single episode of The Bachelor!]

In one of the lovely twists on the classic Cinderella story, Cindy’s stepmother and stepsisters are not evil! In fact, her stepmother Erica is loving and supportive, and her stepsisters Anna and Drew are sweet and love Cindy unstintingly. After Cindy’s father’s sudden death (while Cindy was in high school), Erica moved forward with the surrogacy they’d been planning, so there are also three-year-old triplets for Cindy to adore.

Erica is the creator and producer of the biggest reality TV dating show, Before Midnight. Cindy’s always loved the glamor and romance of the show, but she never could have conceived of being on it herself. When the new season loses contestants right before filming, Anna and Drew are called in as subs, and Cindy decides to take a chance and ask to be included as well. As an aspiring designer with a killer shoe collection, what better way to get her name and her designs out into the world, even if this is way outside her comfort zone? The $100,000 prize doesn’t hurt either — if she can’t find a job, maybe she’ll launch her own brand!

Cindy doesn’t hesitate to describe herself as fat, although it makes her non-fat family and friends cringe. She’s plus-size, and she knows it. She’s tired of going shopping with her sisters and never having options in her size. She’s tired of being told she’s “brave” for wearing stylish or sexy clothes. She’s tired of being viewed as less because of the shape of her body, and she’s tired of being invisible. Go, Cindy!

The actual reality TV experience is just as silly as you’d expect, with 20 women competing for love, although most have reasons for being on the show that have nothing to do with true romance. Everyone wants their moment in the spotlight, and between the influencers and walking memes and mean girls, it’s hard to imagine that love has anything to do with it.

The twist is that this season’s suitor is someone Cindy had met randomly weeks earlier, when the two seemed to share an instant connection. Suddenly, the fake reality dating show becomes a lot more real for Cindy… could he possibly feel what she’s feeling? And what if he doesn’t actually choose her in the end?

I mentioned the emotional aspects of the story. Cindy is still deeply grieving her father’s loss. Her memories of her father and all the ways in which her grief has affected her life are truly touching. The weight of the loss hit her fresh her senior year, which is why she struggled to graduate and felt that she’d lost her creative spark. As she competes on Before Midnight, she also starts to deal more directly with what she’s experienced, how her grief has shaped her last few years, and what reconnecting with her creativity might possibly look like.

I really appreciated the sensitivity with which all this is portrayed, as well as the depiction of Cindy herself as a funny, attractive, determined woman who refuses to feel shame or let others hold her back because of her body size.

I don’t mean to make this sound like serious literature — overall, the tone is funny and sweeet, and there are plenty of silly escapades to laugh over. Surprisingly, Cindy even manages to find true friends among the other contestants, even as the competition heats up, and I loved the idea that women can connect and be kind and supportive to one another even in the weirdest pressure-cooker situations.

The audiobook is a delight. The narrator does a great job with Cindy, as well as making the other Before Midnight contestants and producers come alive as individuals with distinct voices. Also, the dialogue can be very funny, making the audiobook super entertaining.

The next book in the series will be released in May — a Beauty and the Beast retelling (!!) written by Jasmine Guillory (!!), set in the world of publishing and authors (!!). I am so there for it.

Meanwhile, check out If the Shoe Fits! Just a really fun reading/listening experience.

Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Younger Wife
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Thriller/contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

THE HUSBAND

A heart surgeon at the top of his field, Stephen Aston is getting married again. But first he must divorce his current wife, even though she can no longer speak for herself.

THE DAUGHTERS

Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their father’s money.

THE FORMER WIFE

With their mother in a precarious position, Tully and Rachel are determined to get to the truth about their family’s secrets, the new wife closing in, and who their father really is.

THE YOUNGER WIFE

Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them? 

I could not put this book down… and yet now that I’m done, I really don’t know what to think!

As the book opens, we’re at the wedding of Stephen and Heather. They make a beautiful couple, and everyone is so pleased that Stephen has found love again after going through the pain of his former wife’s slide into dementia. And how lovely that he thought to include his ex-wife in this special day! But after the vows, something goes wrong in the next room. There’s blood and an ambulance…

And that’s just the prologue!

From there, we go back some months to Heather’s first meeting with Stephen’s adult daughters, Tully and Rachel. Heather is actually younger than both of them, and they’re prepared to hate her. They’re none too pleased with their father either, but they’re trying to be supportive. He’s done right by their mother, finding her a good nursing home and excellent care, making sure there’s no worry about finances… so why shouldn’t he have the opportunity for love once again?

As the story unfolds, we get chapters from Tully, Rachel, and Heather’s perspectives. No one’s life is as perfect as it seems. Rachel, a magnificent baker, has been dealing with a trauma from her teens for almost 20 years. Tully, a suburban wife and mother, has anxiety through the roof and very unhealthy coping mechanisms. And Heather certainly has not shared the true story of her family’s sordid past.

Each of the three women evokes sympathy in her own way. For Tully and Rachel, they’re dealing not only with issues from their pasts, but also grieving the loss of a beloved mother, mourning a bit more with each visit to the nursing home and the realization that the woman who was so central to their lives has slipped away from them bit by bit. Heather’s childhood was awful, but she’s built a fresh start for herself, even as the occasional doubts about her perfect new life creep in.

It’s hard to say much without giving away key spoilers, so I’ll proceed with caution. As I mentioned, I simply couldn’t put this book down, and finished it over two days of intense reading. Not that that’s surprising — Sally Hepworth’s book always bring out the compulsive reader in me! With short, sharp chapters and fascinating POV characters, The Younger Wife sucked me in from page 1 and just never let me go.

And yet… I felt oddly flat after the end. I really and truly can’t say more, but the resolution left me confused and weirdly disappointed. I need to go back and poke around in earlier chapters to see if I missed anything and reexamine how the pieces fit together.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but perhaps with tempered expectations. Sally Hepworth is a terrific teller of tales, and she creates fascinating, memorable characters. The Younger Wife did not move and engage my emotions the way The Good Sister did, but that’s a very high mark to meet.

The Younger Wife is a fast page-turner, and I enjoyed the reading experience. Now I just need to think about that ending some more…

Book Review: One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

Title: One Italian Summer
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 1, 2022
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When Katy’s mother dies, she is left reeling. Carol wasn’t just Katy’s mom, but her best friend and first phone call. She had all the answers and now, when Katy needs her the most, she is gone. To make matters worse, their planned mother-daughter trip of a lifetime looms: two weeks in Positano, the magical town Carol spent the summer right before she met Katy’s father. Katy has been waiting years for Carol to take her, and now she is faced with embarking on the adventure alone.

But as soon as she steps foot on the Amalfi Coast, Katy begins to feel her mother’s spirit. Buoyed by the stunning waters, beautiful cliffsides, delightful residents, and, of course, delectable food, Katy feels herself coming back to life.

And then Carol appears—in the flesh, healthy, sun-tanned, and thirty years old. Katy doesn’t understand what is happening, or how—all she can focus on is that she has somehow, impossibly, gotten her mother back. Over the course of one Italian summer, Katy gets to know Carol, not as her mother, but as the young woman before her. She is not exactly who Katy imagined she might be, however, and soon Katy must reconcile the mother who knew everything with the young woman who does not yet have a clue.

When Katy’s mother dies, Katy is wrecked — which is completely to be expected. She reflects on how her mother was her person, the one she turned to for everything, who knew her better than anyone.

My mother, you see, is the great love of my life. She is the great love of my life, and I have lost her.

Beyond that, she also relied on her mother for everything, even as an adult. Carol knew how to do everything well — cooking, decorating, planning, socializing, running a life — and as Katy acknowledges to herself throughout the book, because she had Carol at the center of her life, she never really learned how to do much of anything without her.

How could she do this to me? How could she tell me year over year that it was okay, that I didn’t need to know, that I didn’t need to have all the answers, because I had her? How could she make herself so indispensible, so much a part of my life, my very heart — so woven into the fabric of who I am — only to leave? Didn’t she know? Didn’t she know that one day I’d be left without her?

This is problematic in a lot of ways, not least because Katy has been married for years. She and Eric met and fell in love in college, got married, and bought a house just 15 minutes away from Katy’s parents. Carol’s advice and involvement has been central to their marriage as well. Katy just doesn’t know who she is without her mother, and in the months leading up to Carol’s death, everything falls apart, to the point that Katy tells Eric that she’s done with their marriage.

Going to Italy on what was supposed to be the ultimate mother-daughter trip, mere weeks after Carol’s death, is an emotionally momentous undertaking for Katy. They’d always dreamed of going together, so Carol could show Katy the place that meant so much to her as a young woman. Arriving on her own, Katy is immediately wowed by the beauty of Positano, and settles in to soak up the surroundings and try to create one more connection with her mother.

But as the synopsis says, as Katy sets out the next day, she meets a woman in the hotel lobby who is all too familiar: It’s Carol, at age 30 — living in Positano, carefree, beautiful, and without a clue as to Katy’s identity. Once she recovers from the shock, Katy is determined to take this strange opportunity to know her mother in a whole new way, and the women strike up a friendship.

Meanwhile, Katy also explores Positano, meeting people, experiencing the sun, the food, and the sea, and developing a connection to an attractive man she meets at her hotel. As the days pass, she balances her time with Carol and Adam, and delves deeper into her own feelings about where she is in her life and what might come next.

That’s a lot of synopsis, so I’ll hit pause and share some thoughts.

There’s a lot to love about One Italian Summer… and seriously, where do I sign up for this exact trip to Italy? I want to stay in that specific hotel, meet those people, eat that food, go to those beaches. Now. It all sounds incredibly gorgeous and delicious and amazing.

But…

I have a lot of “buts” about this book.

Carol and Katy’s mother-daughter relationship is beautiful in many ways. They love each other and are completely devoted to one another, and that’s lovely. But the more we learn, the less healthy it seems. Carol is too central to Katy’s life — everything she has or does seems connected back to Carol in some way, and even her marriage to Eric keeps Katy’s parents, especially Carol, firmly at its center. Even small-ish things, like why they never actually cook — it’s because their home-cooked meals always happen at Carol’s house, and Carol never taught anyone in her life, Katy or her own husband, to manage without her.

Now, as for central concept of this novel, in which Katy encounters Carol as a younger woman…

There are hints (like the selection of books on the hotel’s shelves) that Katy is somehow spending time 30 years in the past, but it takes her an awfully long time to figure that part out. She just accepts Carol’s presence and doesn’t think much further about it, although it’s pretty obvious to the reader. (Aha, so that’s why Adam has never heard of the movie Jurassic Park and she can’t reach Eric when she tries to call him!)

Katy just accepts that she’ll be able to spend time with Carol as a gift, and that’s that. Yet, Carol has her own life in Positano, which means that Katy has plenty of time on her own too. She follows the itinerary that real-world Carol created for the two of them and connects to her mother’s memory through what she experiences, but she also has plenty of time for Adam.

Spoilers ahead! Does it count as cheating if it happens 30 years in the past in a weird alternate pocket of time? I’d say yes, but it doesn’t seem to trouble Katy all that much. And it’s not at all clear whether what happens during this Italian vacation will carry through to Katy’s present. Is there a man out there who has memories of the young woman he had a fling with in Italy all those years earlier?

Beyond the Adam storyline — well, it’s nice that Katy gets both closure and a new perspective on who her mother was. As she spends time with young Carol, she learns new facts about her mother’s life that she’d never known, and also has time to understand that Carol always had parts of her life that didn’t revolve around Katy.

In some ways, it’s a moving look at loss and grieving, and how the loss of a loved one can force someone to take a fresh look at everything in their life. There are some moments of reflection that I found startlingly real and emotionally honest.

But…

Bottom line, this book makes no sense. I can’t go with a storyline that takes place “because magic” without any explanation whatsoever. Why is Katy experiencing this time 30 years in the past? How is she able to be there? Why did it start and why did it end?

Your guess is as good as mine. There’s no explanation. And I can’t just shrug and accept it as just the way things happened — not when it’s clear that this wasn’t a dream state or alternate reality or coma-dream or even a time slip in the fabric of the world. It just happens, and then it stops, and Katy just accepts it all.

On a more positive note, the author has a lovely way with words, bringing tastes and sounds and smells to life quite vividly. The Italy of Katy’s visit is beautifully described and presented — it’s an immersive experience just reading about it.

I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Serle’s two other books for adults (The Dinner List and In Five Years), although even in both of these, there’s a magical element that happens to advance the plot but has no real explanation. Somehow, this aspect bothered me much more in One Italian Summer than it did in the other books.

Overall, there are a lot of enjoyable aspects to this book, but the plot holes kept me from fully engaging. On top of that, what I initially felt was an incredibly beautiful mother-daughter relationship was revealed to be less healthy than I first imagined, and that left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Still, it’s a quick and often emotionally engaging read, and I do appreciate the author’s ability to cast a spell with her writing. I’ll look forward to whatever she writes next.