Review: The Bookshop on the Corner

the bookshop on the corner

The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Summary: Nina Redmond loses her librarian job, pursues a dream of a mobile bookshop, ending up in the Scottish Highlands, bringing joy to a cluster of small towns in her Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, while longing for her own happy-ever-after.

I’m a sucker for books on books and so didn’t notice that this is categorized as women’s fiction, and romance, two categories I tend not to read. What is curious-er is that I actually liked it, for the most part. It was a nice break from some other heavier reads, and explored some themes I found interesting.

The story is that Nina Redmond, a librarian in Birmingham, is about to lose her job in a library consolidation. In an outplacement workshop exercise, complete with all the cliche’s of modern corporate life, she is invited to share her own dream job. And she finally admits that it is to own her own bookshop, maybe a tiny one, where she can help match up people with books they will love. The dream lingers and takes the shape of a mobile bookshop in a van. She finds the van–in rural Scotland–and finally, with the help of villagers, persuades the owner to sell it to her. They hope she will bring her little bookshop to their town, and after being turned down for vending and parking permits in Birmingham, and a near-disaster encounter with a train, she decides to stay. At last her book-beleaguered roommate Surinder will get her and her books out of the apartment.

With the help of the train engineer, a Latvian emigre by the name of Marek, boxes and boxes of books are transported from Birmingham to a train crossing near her home at Kirrinfief. She finds a beautiful converted barn to rent from a grumpy, divorcing sheep farmer, Lennox. Surinder comes up and paints the name she chooses for her little bookshop, The Bookshop of Happy-Ever-After on her van while she fits out the inside. The bookshop is a huge success and villagers who haven’t read a book in years are matched up with books they love. Some admit that when the libraries closed and no local stores were available, they just stopped reading. There is one delightful scene where she looks around the village, and sees people reading everywhere. The village embraces her and she finds she cares for them more than she would have thought–a teen girl Ainslee and her brother Ben, who are facing some trouble at home, a shopkeeper who has faced too many disappointments, and even the grumpy farmer, who she assists in delivering twin lambs that only she, with her small hands, could untangle inside the ewe.

Yes, it is a romance novel, an adult one in places. Nina strikes up this odd romantic relationship with the Latvian, Marek, who leaves books on a tree by the rail crossing for her, and she in return for him. They meet sometimes, and it nearly becomes something more. Yet, it is pretty clear to the reader that the real deal is Lennox and we all wonder what it will take to bring the two together. We wonder if Nina will find her own “happy-ever-after” or if these are just the stuff of fiction.

I loved the descriptions of the Scotland, the countryside, the short summer nights and the Northern Lights, the village life and festivals. More than this, I love the transformation that occurs both in Nina and in Kirrinfief and how books are the medium of that transformation. Nina discovers a calling in bringing people with little access to books together with books they love, books that broaden their horizons, or even books that are gateways for them into reading, as it was with Ben. In the process, we witness a village discovering what it had lost, settling for electronic media substitutes, and the joy of recovering what was lost and making the fabric of their life a bit richer. The contrast between Kirrinfief and Birmingham, with its hectic pace of life, shuttering its libraries and bookstores for an electronically mediated life, portrayed by her friend Griffin, who manages to keep his job in a technology-oriented thing called a library that has little to do with books.

None of this is heavy-handed, maybe a bit cliché at times, but an enjoyable page-turning read. This was a romance in more ways in one. Yes, there is the romantic element of Nina caught between the “puppy-eyed” Marek, and the gruff, angular Lennox. But there is also the romance of bookselling–the wonderful matchmaking work between books and their readers–as well as the practicalities of getting stock and making a living at it. More than that, we have the reminder in Nina’s rolling bookshop of how everything from Little Free Libraries to bookmobiles and libraries and village bookshops weave together to enrich the social ecology of a place.

Love Stories

For any of you who have followed me, you have probably figured out that you won’t see many reviews of love stories, and likely none of romance novels.  Between the ads that show up on my Kindle and posts this week (as Valentine’s Day approaches), in places like the New York Times Review of Books and Publishers Weekly, it has come to my awareness that I am definitely out of step with a certain segment of the reading public!

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I can readily hear the women who follow this blog shouting at this point, “it’s because you are a man!” All I can say to that is, “guilty as charged!” Personally, I’d like to think it is because I am living two of the greatest love stories I’ve known–one with my wife of 35 years and one as part of the church as Christ’s betrothed and beloved of God.

That said, on further reflection, I have to say that I enjoy love stories when they are part of bigger stories. Right now I am reading Glorious Waran account of George Custer’s Civil War adventures.  Interspersed with narratives of Custer’s boldness, strategic sense, and courage in battles, we have the adventure of his courtship and marriage of Libbie Bacon. The love story is a welcome respite from the battle scenes and helps me see Custer as more than a one dimensional figure.

Likewise, one of the things I’ve always loved about Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is that it sets her marriage and deepening love for Nathan Coulter alongside the challenges of rural agriculture, the memories of war, and the obligations of extended family and community.

It was fascinating for me to read Caitlin Flanagan’s review of Daniel Jones Love Illuminated. Jones edits the Modern Love” column for The New York Times. She expresses her surprise at her discovery of a central thread in Jones book:

“We were promised an exploration of life’s most mystifying subject, but instead what we keep coming back to is a study of life’s least mystifying subject: how it might come to pass that two like-minded graduate students in the same creative writing program might fall in love, get married, learn that marriage is not composed of an unfolding series of ever-heightened erotic pleasures, and yet still manage, year after year, to keep their leaky but serviceable vessel out of dry dock.”

Maybe this explains for me why I like the kinds of love narratives I’ve described above. They are situated in the much larger and yet less fantastic context of real lived, human experience. I like the phrase “leaky but serviceable vessel”. Real love wars with our personal selfishness and calls us into self-denying love. It struggles through raising children together, financial tensions, illness of parents or spouse, the tension of the siren call of career and the harder work of going deeper in the encounter with one other. Probably like others on this journey, I have to say it has been only in a small measure what I imagined, and looking back over 35 years, far better than I could ever have hoped.

As I write these words I’m conscious of my single or formerly married friends. I neither want to venture explanations of why one hasn’t yet found the love we’ve lived these many years nor why it hasn’t worked out for another. That would only be to add to the pain. What I would propose instead is that the love stories we read should not be the ones that are anodynes for our pain or fantasies of what we wish we had, but the narratives that set love in the larger context of life, that prepare us to be better lovers wherever God gives us the chance to love.