The Secret of Happy Ever After by Lucy Dillon

The Secret of Happy Ever After by Lucy DillonJust to be a complete literary snob for a second, The Secret of Happy Ever After is not the type of book I normally buy.  I’m more than happy to read “chick-lit” (although I do hate that title) if someone’s recommended a particular book and lent it to me, but I don’t normally seek it out.

So why did I buy this one?  Firstly, the fairy tale sound of the title drew me in enough to pull the book off the shelf.  Then the picture of the Dalmatian on the front cover (I can’t resist a story about animals) persuaded me to read the blurb.  Finally, once I’d discovered that the story was set in a bookshop, I was sold!

The novel focuses on Michelle and Anna, whose friendship is sealed after Pongo, Anna’s clumsy but lovable Dalmatian (whose name of course derives from 101 Dalmatians), barges into a café and results in their accidental meeting.  Michelle has just moved to the village and has opened a homewares shop, which she intends to reflect the new life she has made for herself: serene, uncluttered and perfectly polished.  However, as the novel progresses she begins to realise that the items she sells in her store, and indeed the lifestyle she has created, is only perfect on the surface, and empty and meaningless in reality.  Despite the closeness she and Anna share, she hates to talk about her past, and it’s clear that Michelle holds back a lot of her true self from her friend.

Anna, on the other hand, is quite literally an open book.  She is a genuine, warm person: a true romantic, and an avid reader.  Naïve and with her head in the clouds, she always imagined a fairy tale ending for herself, but life just isn’t that simple.  The man she fell in love with and married has been married before, and his three very different children are now living with them.  She struggles to find her place in this family – the family she has always wanted but which isn’t really hers – and the book expertly describes her valiant efforts to put everyone else first, her increasing feelings of isolation, and her deteriorating relationship with her husband, all combined with the madness of broodiness which she tries so hard to fight.

Her only salvation is her bookshop.  Here she can indulge her love of books by setting up displays, chatting nostalgically to customers, organising book clubs, and just generally absorbing the aura of the beloved paperbacks all around her.  Gradually she talks her step-children round to appreciating the power of a good novel, and even has the youngest clamouring for her nightly bedtime story.  But she struggles to get Michelle to pick up a book, much to her dismay.  Anna’s most annoying quality is one which a lot of book lovers are guilty of – treating non-readers as a challenge to be overcome by recommending book after book, sure that once they find the right book their victim friend will fall under the reading spell and be converted.

As you learn more about Michelle and watch as Anna deals with the latest family crisis, you find yourself rooting for both characters and empathising with their separate dramas.  You also feel the strongly nostalgic sense of relief each experiences each time they step into the bookshop (even Michelle), and as Anna’s customers browse through a copy of Malory Towers or a vintage Agatha Christie, they too invariably find something which was missing from their lives before.  The books may not have to power to actually solve the characters’ problems, but they do provide a respite from the pressures of the real world and allow them to indulge in the emotions they often struggle to admit out loud.  And yes, I know the idea of books having the ability to heal you sounds a bit wet, but it’s actually more of a subtle point, peeking out from behind the main stories of Anna and Michelle.

As you can probably tell from my review, I loved this book when I was merely expecting to like it.  This is a great novel for book lovers, and, as we follow the characters over the course of a year, it’s also a perfect Christmas read.

Happy new year everyone!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. FleurFisher
    Dec 30, 2012 @ 22:46:36

    I read this last year, after being drawn in by the bookshop, the dogs, and the an idea that this would be contemporary romance done well. And it is, isn’t it?!


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