Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe

Title: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sphere / Hachette Australia
Year of Publication: 2011
Page Extent:456

Issy Randall is a thirty-something in London, working in an office job that does nothing for her except pay the bills. She's having a secret relationship with her boss, Graeme (well, she thinks it's a relationship - it's a bit hard for her to tell) and she spends her spare time baking and visiting her grandfather, a former baker, in a nursing home. Life is pretty....average.

Suddenly, changes are afoot in the property development office where she works and redundancies loom. But Issy knows her job is secure. She's sleeping with the boss after all. So imagine her surprise when she's called into Graeme's office and given her marching orders. Not long after that, Graeme ends their affair and leaves her jobless, boyfriend-less and totally humiliated.

Retreating to a hermit-like existence, Issy spends her time baking delicious cakes for her and her roommate, Helena, and lying in bed all day depressed and desolate. A forced excursion to an employment training seminar leaves Issy feeling even more hopeless at finding another job, and after admiring the empty little shop and sunny courtyard at the corner of her street, and idea begins to take shape in Issy's mind. Encouraged by Helena, Issy starts investigating the possibility of opening her own cupcake café, and before she knows it, she's up to her eyeballs in lease agreements and mortgage applications and building quotes.

Luckily the local bank manager, Austin, is there to help Issy along the way, and despite his disheveled appearance and equally disheveled personal life, Issy begins to feel soft sparks flying between them. As her café takes shape, we are introduced to a host of quirky and likable characters: Pearl, the unemployed single mother Issy recruits to work in the café, Caroline, the sharp divorcee who isn't afraid to voice her upper-class opinions on everything, and Grandpa Joe, who supplies Issy with his tried and true recipes. The café opens to moderate success, with word of mouth and a few lucky breaks propelling Issy and her baking into the spotlight.

While Issy works hard to establish herself in the small business world, Graeme hatches a scheme to try and win Issy back and develop the lovely little group of shops on Pear Tree Court where Issy's café is, into a group of modern apartments, with the deluded idea that she'll actually be grateful to him for selling up her dream and getting her back into an office job. Tension mounts as Austin and Graeme vie for Issy's attention, and Issy and Helena clash over Issy's choices as she works to achieve her goals, both professional and personal.

This all sounds like fairly standard chick lit fare, but there's something more personal and touching about this novel than the usual material in the genre. One of the most enticing and thoughtful touches is the inclusion of a recipe at the start of each chapter, which is then something Issy bakes or is featured in the café throughout the chapter. Not only do the recipes sound delicious and, as someone who loves to bake, I find that particular aspect of the novel extremely appealing, but there's a realness to Issy and her friends that makes the story totally relateable.

The story itself is somewhat predictable, but the author's focus on each characters' story is what sets this apart from other chick lit. The audience isn't subjected to Issy's every thought and rumination over her love life - there's a good amount of focus on her setting up the business and the day to day running of the café with Pearl and Caroline. Told in the third person, the point of view switches from Issy to Pearl to Austin to Graeme with ease, giving the reader a nice, balanced taste of life in Stoke Newington, London with all its kooky characters.  It's hard not to find yourself feeling like part of the neighbourhood (and craving a cupcake almost constantly as you read)!

This book is the perfect Summer read. It's a denser book than most chick lit, and it would be wonderful for lazy days at the beach or warm nights sipping a cocktail after dinner, and I highly recommend it if you're after a good comfort read during the busy festive season!

In a word: lovely

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Hannah said...

I do like your book reviews! I'm super proud of myself for having read three whole books this past weekend, and want to stay "on a roll", so to speak. Something light like this sounds like just the ticket to intersperse with Bleak House (I will finish it this time. I will.)

Julia @ Boredom Abounds said...

Hannah, thank you! Yes, this is light and fluffy for Christmas, but with enough substance to keep you entertained throughout.

Merrin said...

I want to read it and get the recipes. If Sophie Kinsella likes it then it must be ok - she is the author of the shopaholics series isn't she?

Julia @ Boredom Abounds said...

Merrin, yes, Sohpie Kinsella wrote the Shopaholics books. The recipes are so good. You can actually log on to the author's website and get all the recipes there!