Campari For Breakfast by Sara Crowe
Shelf worth: 4/5
It took me a while to extract myself from my jealous huff and actually buy this enchanting book. I've been writing a similar story about a child shipped off to live with eccentric relatives, and that Sara Crowe has had the audacity to actually finish hers, and for it to be absolutely wonderful, is quite beyond the pale.
I've long admired her as a terrific comic, whether fluffing along endearingly in Four Weddings, or eating cheese in clouds in the Philadelphia ads. In Campari For Breakfast, she proves that she is just as funny a writer: this is a smart, sweet and frequently hilarious read.
Sue Bowl - daughter of Buddleia, niece of Coral Garden, heiress to a dynasty of wonderful names - is a 17-year-old aspiring writer whose mother has just killed herself. Sue's father has rallied with unseemly haste and is now going out with the ghastly Ivana, who Sue suspects to be a gold digger, but above all resents for being on the scene so soon.
Sue leaves both behind to spend a year with her mother's much-older sister Coral in Egham, at her sprawling house Green Place. The house needs help. It has a dilapidated wing that may as well be the Arctic, a possible ghost, and needs a massive injection of cash. Some of this comes from the house's resident eccentrics: Delia, Coral's companion; the Admiral, Aunt Coral's lodger and unrequited love; and Mrs Bunion, the magnificent and implausibly-named 'treasure' who does for the house.
Crowe has great fun with her characters: Egham's populace is named with great romance. Three old ladies who always wear the same clothing are nicknamed Print, Georgette and Taffeta. Sue gets a job at a sandwich shop called The Toastie, whose wildly ambitious owner has two sons, Joe and Icarus. One falls in love with Sue, to her horror as she is in love with the other, gorgeous but useless one - no prizes for guessing which brother gets which name. And Aunt Coral - always Aunt - sets up a writing group for Sue and the house, which makes me incredibly wistful for the sort of set-up where someone will cook you a wonderful supper, and then someone else will supervise you in writing while waving a glass of 'Sapphire' around.
This might sound borderline offensively cosy, and while there is much to make you murmur, "Oh that's lovely," Crowe spikes her narrative with waspish wit and some expertly-wrangled subplots. Sue's attempts to write a serious period history romance, fall in love and find out why her mother killed herself mesh incredibly well. Interspersed with Sue's diaries are extracts from Aunt Coral's 'Commonplace book', a collection of diary thoughts, notices and pinned-in memos from childhood, all leading to what happened to Coral and Buddleia's sister Cameo (those marvellously unlikely names! I'm jealous, and my middle name is Stuart).
Sue's tricky relationship with her father is beautifully handled: in a book filled with eccentrics, this could have become farce but instead it is moving and caricature-free. Delia's gorgeous daughter Loudolle, flying in from finishing school, makes for a satisfying nemesis; Aunt Coral and her merry band are rounded and delightful, and wonderful lines combine wisdom and humour in a way that is truly enviable.
The only thing I found irritating was Sue's spelling. Coral appears able to spell impeccably from age five, so 17-year-old Sue's habit of sporadically writing things like "a fete worse than death" doesn't always work especially as she is well-read and can spell longer words no problem. The spelling is used as end of chapter punchlines, but, when it doesn't quite come off, it pulls you away.
That said, it isn't enough to distract from an engaging and lovely story, and once Crowe gets into her stride you forget you're reading a book at all. Curl up and fall in love with Green Place - and raise a glass of Campari or something other to Sara Crowe for a debut that gloriously hits the mark.