Written by Claire Sandy
Published by Pan Books in 2014
Copyright ©Just Grand 2014
When I first started this novel I struggled to continue reading. Aside from the language barrier between the UK and the US, I found certain humor just went over my head. Claire didn’t catch my attention as quickly as I would have liked, however, the further I dove into the book, the more I fell in love with everyone in it.
Right off the bat Claire reveals Marie’s hatred towards Lucy, which is a major focus point of the book. A growing fire was kindling inside her toward a woman who embodied everything she wanted to be and everything she wasn’t. Marie, our protagonist… There are no words for her character. She’s funny, she’s dedicated, jealous, insecure, and at times, rude. She is undeniably lovable, and relatable. Marie is a familiar friend, because she embodies the personality of many women today. She’s jealous of another woman who has surpassed her in the ability to be a housewife, she’s insecure about her weight and appearance, she’s driven crazy by her children, and husband, and she has an undying wish to be better at everything- cooking, existing, and being a housewife.
We quickly get a glimpse of Marie’s lifestyle when she recounts her beliefs of being a “doyenne of the ready-meal, a devotee of the frozen pea, and believed the takeaway to be more beneficial to modern humanity than penicillin.” Though Marie loves the idea of cooking, she’s far too busy, and far too clumsy to actually do it. Marie’s internal thoughts and beliefs don’t just radiate through the book when she’s cooking, she lacks a filter in all areas of life.
Marie has an opinion about everyone she’s ever met, and Claire does a good job of painting the picture of Marie’s opinions for us. For example, when we hear her opinion of Lauren, the school’s untouchable popular girl. Claire throws in a dash of humor that makes the image painfully vivid when she says she’s “the wild-child niece of a school governor, [and] she ruled the roost at St. Ethelred’s and managed to get away with a nose stud, a tattoo and a skirt rolled up so high it could double as a belt.” I don’t know about you, but that line alone made me giggle!
Marie is a loving mother, a devoted wife, and a kind heart. She even became a dentist simply because it was her “small way of adding happiness to the world.” She wants to be a better wife, a better mother, and a better cook. She wants to be everything she’s believed Lucy is, and she’s not.
Aside from her thoughts on others, the most revealing moments are her thoughts about herself and her own life. At one point Marie realizes that “even [as] a woman who adores her husband, loves her children, appreciates her career, and cares about her work-mates [she] can feel that life is [like] a hamster wheel.” She recognizes that she values what she has, however she also notices that she’s just going through the motions and her life has become mundane and repetitive. She realizes that even though she’s happy, doesn’t mean that baking is going to fix any of her brokenness. She spends her entire life engulfed in the thought of “What would Marry Berry Do?” This being her mantra now that her idol, and leader out of the burnt baked goods pit had taught her how to bake.
When we take our eyes off of Marie, and look at her husband we notice interesting things about his character. Before we’ve even reached page 50, Claire throws in wonderful insight into Robert’s past. She explains that in 1993 he was a “ripped jean [wearing], fresh from wild years in college,” boy. Marie paints her husband as the love of her life, as she is his. Don’t get me wrong. he has his moments where his manliness shines through. For example, when Marie ask him what kind of icing his coworker used, his response was: “Are you rolling your eyes at me because I can’t tell fondant icing from royal icing? I’m still a bloke, you know. I do have balls and stuff. It’s a medical fact – you can’t differentiate between icings if you own a willy.” This banter alone really gives the reader a clear understanding of Robert’s personality.
Robert continues growing throughout the book, and trust me – we see even more of his man-ish behavior before it’s all said and done. Robert is not only a man’s man, but he’s also a perfectionist. With dry humor, lots of love for his wife, and the craving to be respected for his abilities and intelligence, we begin to find Robert well rounded. Only 70 pages in we get insight into how Robert has become the man he is today. Having had a dead-beat dad who had gone to buy a paper, and never returned, plus a single mom, caring for three kids with no money, he grew up swearing he would never do this to his family. His core being requires of him to provide for his family.
Shifting our focus to their marriage, where we are looking at them as a couple rather than individuals, we get to see subtle moments that paint a clear picture of their relationship. In the banter between all their “rows,” (which I eventually understood to be an argument,) we end up falling in love with these two. They exist to bicker, and yet love each other endlessly. Claire even reveals the intimacy of Marie and Robert’s marriage when Robert begins whining about going to bed alone. He says, “I don’t like going up on my own… No nice bottom to snuggle up to.” She is showing the happiness that Marie and Robert have in their marriage and that Robert genuinely enjoys his wife. Claire also uses bickering to give depth and a realness to their relationship. It makes them undeniably relatable.
One of my favorite bickering moments is when after Marie has made her first attempts at cake baking she hears a remark from Robert: “Is that how it’s supposed to look?” “Are you reading from A Handbook of Irritating Phrases?” To which Robert replies, “No. I’m a natural.” The dripping sarcasm makes you feel like you can’t help but love them as a couple! At this point in the novel I start to notice changes. Character development is increasing, and they are beginning to come to life. I’m now comparing the characters to people in my own life as I see similarities in the personalities. (My boyfriend is practically Robert’s twin.)
Looking at the family unit we count a family of 6 (including Marie.) She has a husband, three kids, and a dog. Between the young twins, the moody teenage boy, the gassy dog, and the lovely pain in the butt husband, she has her hands full! Rose and Iris, 9-year-old twins, are two sarcastic, witty, and charming young ladies. They’re different than the average girls in that they’re not girly, and are more interested in being smart than doing their hair. Do not underestimate them!
Incredibly intelligent for their age, they often put other’s in their place by asking uncomfortable questions, and being nosy. These girls are incredibly blunt and lack a filter, for sure- much like their mother. Though this is charming, at times it is completely childish and rude. During one of the many times the girls were nosy they inquired Chloe (Lucy Gray’s daughter) about her biological mother- embarrassing Marie in the process. Later on the girls fired a comment to their Mom about her buying Angus a gift she would want herself since she had not listened to their prior suggestion of making him a fruitcake. Marie isn’t a perfect mom, but she loves her children nonetheless.
Even though the primary family is the Dunwoody’s, the Grays turn into a vital portion of the story. Aside from Chloe Gray, being in love with Angus Dunwoody, Lucy being the nemesis of Marie, and Tod being the dreamy unachievable husband, we find that things take an unexpected turn. Halfway through the story, when Marie’s employee requests she bake a croquembouche for Lynda’s wedding, Marie tries to remain calm. She ends up staying home on New Years to bake this beast, and it ends up flopping. Literally, with little sticky balls bouncing all over the kitchen, the cake is caput. After an unexpected visit from Lucy, she’s come and saved the day. Who’d have expected them to bond over the thing Marie holds most sacred?
Marie never expected her “arch-enemy to be generous, kind, and fun.” Marie never expected Lucy to give her credit with a “take a look at what you’ve achieved,” when the Croguembouche was completed. Before long, a friendship had blossomed between these two ladies that was unexpected. Lucy had long wanted to be her friend, but could tell Marie never fancied the idea. Now with a new friend across the street, and Mary Berry paving the way to baked Heaven, Life in Casa de Grays and Casa de Dunwoody was GREAT!
Aside from the rockiness of both Marie and Robert’s jobs from a kiss-up at Robert’s work, and a competing Dentist looking to steal everyone’s money across the street from Marie, life was great. Angus was finally reciprocating the attraction Chloe had for him, and life was going well! Well, almost too good. Aside from the occasional view of dreamy Tod hopping over Erika’s fence, Marie assumed life must be perfect in the Gray’s house. But was it too perfect?
After a night of intimacy with a bottle, Lucy loosened her lips about things going on behind closed doors. Verbal abuse, and berating of her and Chloe’s weight left her feeling horrible. The tall dark drink of water known as Tod wasn’t so appealing anymore. Suddenly a secret was unleashed, Tod’s ex left him after he’d been unfaithful to her. Marie wanted to keep her mouth closed about the things she had seen, but she lacked a filter, and with this new information how could she? So out it came. “Maybe I shouldn’t bring this up now, but… It just struck me as strange.” Concerned about worrying Lucy over nothing, she continued “and yet… and yet… last night, and this could be nothing, really it could but- Tod went up the road with your recycling bin…” Reconsidering her tale, she paused. “I’m drunker than I realized… he didn’t come back.”
Filled with liquid courage Lucy was ready to find out where her husband was, because working late on a bank holiday just didn’t seem possible. Brushing herself through the back gardens connecting all the other houses, she assumed he was with Erika, the neighborhood’s promiscuous sphinx. The house just before hers was her friend Hattie’s. She had hoped not to disturb Hattie by being in her backyard and approached just to give a brief hello and explanation to being in her backyard. The naked chase going on through the glass doors was unexpected as Tod was pursuing Hattie. Things would never be the same.
Suddenly we understood how imperfect Casa de Gray was, and how truly broken Lucy and Chloe had been. Kicked out of his own house Tod was forced to leave, causing strife between step-daughter and step-mom. Lucy loved Chloe like she was her own, which was so easily seen through the way she talked about her. What would happen now that she didn’t have a man? She had no job, and couldn’t support the two of them. A divorce was obviously needed. Marie noted “If you mixed together eggs, flour and sugar, you got a cake. Families were a more complicated recipe.”
After a debate with Tod in the home, Chloe overheard the truth and decided she’d stay with Lucy. Sandy did an incredible job tying up all the pieces of this story. Marie wasn’t sure how she’d manage it, but she told her husband he could quit the job he’d long since hated, and she’d find a way for things to work out. After a short affair with Marie’s employee, the evil dentist across the road decided he couldn’t stay and have his heart broken daily when Aileen refused to stay with him. It helped that there was a lawsuit underway for malpractice, too. All of Marie’s previous clients returned, including even more who needed help after Klay’s reckless rampage.
Was it all over? Was everything settled now? Robert was at home, Lucy was single and had Chloe, and Marie had the Rule of her Roost again! What about the two love birds? Oh, Sandy took care of that, too. Through the entire book Angus had been emailing a pen-pal from Scotland who he called his soulmate. Though he was falling for Chloe, he continuously chose the long distance pen-pal over her. In the end, the pen-pal cut ties with Angus and expressed she no longer wanted to do this. He needed to go be with the “Goth Girl Across the Street” as he referred to Chloe. He hated Chloe even more for this.
Through a “Girlfriend Questionnaire” the twins had Chloe fill out in the beginning of this story, Angus stumbled upon something he never expected. A misspelling that only his “soulmate” did. He now understood everything. The reason his pen-pal wouldn’t let him visit, the reason she wouldn’t identify as his girlfriend, all of it… was because she had been across the street the entire time! Soulmate, was The Goth Girl. Riding in on a pink bicycle, re-enacting Chloe’s favorite seen from a movie, Angus came in and swept her off her feet.
All had been resolved, but Sandy wasn’t done. She continued on and created the loveliest of endings. Lucy and Robert had been spending a lot of time alone together, which was concerning Marie, but she trusted them both infallibly. All the doubts in her mind however attacked her the moment Robert and Lucy pulled her outside to talk to her “together.” They began apologizing for having kept this a secret from her, and Marie was growing crazier by the second. Had all fallen apart again? Soon, Lucy revealed that Robert and she had NOT been having an affair. *Insert sigh of relief* However, they had purchased the building across from Marie’s dentistry at a steal after the Evil Dentist had disappeared to Spain. They were opening a Sandwich Shop, and Café that they wanted all three of them to run. How could Sandy top this? How could she wrap up the story with a little bow on top? By revealing the name of the Shop… and by expressing the beauty of all of their lives… “Life is Sweet.”