The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan

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The Bookshop on the Shore is by Scottish author Jenny Colgan, winner of the 2013 Romantic Novel of the Year Award for Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams.

In The Bookshop on the Shore, Zoe O’Connell, a young mother, is raising her mute four-year-old son, Hari, alone after her boyfriend, DJ Jaz, leaves once again for parts unknown. Jaz calls on his older sister, Surinder, to help him with his girlfriend. He is a spoiled, wealthy young man who can’t get his act together and doesn’t have the nerve to tell his parents about his four-year-old son. He doesn’t face up to his parental responsibilities well either and his financial help to Zoe is erratic; he seems to expect her to land on her feet without really helping out.

Surinder knows of a position as a bookseller with her friend Nina in a small village in the Scottish Highlands near Loch Ness. There’s another position open as the au pair to three children at the manor house nearby.

Zoe is worn down by life and the posts will provide her with her living quarters and a small income. At the manor, she is needed only at night and early morning. During the day, the children are left to their own devices because they have been suspended from school. This leaves her free to work at the other job, helping and eventually replacing a very pregnant Nina who uses her own van as a bookshop. The jobs seem ideal for Zoe, who has had training at a posh nursery school in London and loves books. She needs all her talents to take on the children, however. She is Nanny Seven, according to the talkative Patrick.

Zoe feels trapped, but what can she do? She has no money and nowhere to go. She quickly learns that the father, Ramsay Urquart, is clueless as to how his children survive. The children’s mother left two years ago, and their father, lord of the manor, is rarely around. He is an antiquarian bookseller who travels a lot with his work.

Shackleton, who is overweight and has acne, eats mainly toast. The other two survive on cereal, toast and whatever junk food they can find in the cabinets. Zoe is shocked at the setup and tries to remedy it. She attempts to make friends with the three children, Shackleton, 12, Mary, 9, and Patrick, 5. Mary and Shackleton are challenging. Mary has serious emotional issues. Shackleton rarely looks up from his devices and Patrick immediately becomes the mute Hari’s best friend.

Hari suffers from elective mutism, a social anxiety disorder. According to his doctors, Hari will talk when he is ready. The hands-off attitude of the doctors is of little comfort to everyone around Hari who, of course, want him to talk like a “normal” child. That’s except Patrick, who says it’s a good thing Hari doesn’t talk much because he talks a lot.

Zoe makes friends with Shackleton by teaching him to cook. Mary is more difficult with her emotional problems, but Zoe is able to get her the help she needs. As she becomes more comfortable in her position, she sets about getting more and better food for the children. Although the house is falling apart from lack of care, Zoe tells Ramsay that they really must modernize the house with a dishwasher, a microwave, a more reliable WIFI setup and clothes for the children, especially Mary, who simply can’t wear boys’ hand-me-downs.

As for the bookshop, Zoe drives, but she has her difficulties with the book van; I’ll leave you to discover the problem with the chicken. Zoe challenges the status quo of Nina’s philosophy about the bookshop. Nina is not happy when Zoe suggests the possibility of expanding the business, but she slowly comes around. Zoe even tackles the books at the manor and encourages Ramsay to let her sell some of the books through the bookshop for the benefit of the children.

Ms. Colgan insists the novel is a stand-alone book; nevertheless, fans see the resemblance to the previous The Bookshop on the Corner. This novel is a tour de force for books. Colgan mentions many children’s books though they are probably better known in Scotland and England than in the United States. Since Nina runs a bookshop, Colgan mentions many current books, and through Urquart, she shows her knowledge of antique books, too.

In spite of the fact that the book is slow in the beginning, it’s entertaining. The setting is mainly in Scotland, and Colgan’s love of the Scottish Highlands with its mist and glorious fresh air comes through clearly. The story is believable and well done with Colgan’s sense of humor coming through. Even the kids are finally sorted out when the story ends. No further spoiler! ■