This is van Praag's sixth published book, her fifth book on subtly magical fictional characters in Cambridge, England. Van Praag's writing style continues to mature and delight.
In this story, the center of gravity is Gatsby's, an antique shop run by a middle-aged, unmarried woman named Judith. When true seekers—people who genuinely need something to change in their lives—enter the store, Judith helps them find a special object that becomes a talisman and attracts those changes. Judith has been running the shop alone for a couple of decades. Within the first four chapters, the author introduces all of the secondary characters: Viola, a highly competitive chef; Mathieu and Hugo, a father and son devastated by the loss of Virginie, the wife and mother. The man and boy are struggling to function. Mathieu is a history professor at one of Cambridge's many smaller colleges.
As the book begins, it's the Yule-tide season and Judith is frustrated by shoppers who are simply looking for a gift for a friend or relative, not genuine seekers. The awkward and unhappy circumstances surrounding Mathieu and Viola are introduced as well. Van Praag is becoming more skilled at giving her characters depth, charm, and endearing quirks that engage the reader with their unfolding stories.
Midway through the book, Judith is shocked by an unexpected phone call. She has a niece that's the daughter of a half-sister of whom she was entirely unaware. The half-sister has died and Judith is informed by the children's services agency that she's expected to take custody of Gertie, her heretofore unknown niece. As the book races to its ending, Judith and Gertie learn how to enjoy living together and sharing the antique shop. Mathieu and Hugo get past their grieving stage, and Viola becomes aware that her obsessive drive to win at all costs has actually sabotaged both her career and personal life.
This is another charming, quick read for people who love the magical realism genre. The magic in the book is subtle and inserted with the lightest touch. People who love French cuisine will take special pleasure in chef Viola and her quest for culinary perfection (although it may make some readers hungry, too). The details that are invested in each character make them fascinating and easy to follow.
Recommended as a lovely book for a free afternoon or evening's escapist entertainment. Like van Praag's other books, you really won't want the story to end.
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Meena van Praag
2018, Allison & Busby Limited
349 pages, $10.84 pb