Campari for Breakfast

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Campari for Breakfast, Sara Crowe, book reviewSue Bowl has been through a lot more in life than most 17 year olds. Her mother, Buddleia, committed suicide, and not long after that, her father took up with another woman. Buddleia’s sister, Aunt Coral, was still mourning the loss of their father when Buddleia took her life. Looking for comfort, and knowing Sue needed some comforting herself, Coral invites her to Egham to spend her gap year in her mother’s ancestral home. Of course, Sue can’t out of Titford fast enough, mostly because she’s sure that Green Place will be the perfect setting to start writing her novel. And while she’s there, perhaps she can find some answers about her mother, with a dash of romance on the side. This is Sara Crowe’s debut novel Campari for Breakfast.

One of the first things readers will find in this book is that it has heap-loads of charm, part of which is due to it taking place in the late 1980s in a semi-rural village outside London. Most of the story here is told from Sue’s point of view, as diary entries. These are interspersed with excerpts from Aunt Coral’s “Commonplace Books”. A Commonplace Book is sort of a combination diary and scrapbook, in which girls not only put down their thoughts and experiences, but also where they collected things like articles, recipes, quotes and other items of interest. Coral’s been keeping hers since she was only seven years old, and today, at the age of 65, she now has five volumes of them. This lovely variation on a well-used mechanic not only brings Coral all the more to life, it also serves as a beautifully rendered option to classic flashbacks.

Crowe also brings together a cast of captivating characters. Sue is young, na├»ve and funny while also being endearingly quirky. We see this with her misuse of certain words, how she sometimes lets her imagination run overly wild and in the snippets from her over-the-top period romance story, which is adolescent to the extreme. This is in contrast with how nicely Sue writes her diary entries, which borders on the poetic, as well as her take-charge ability to invent creative ways to help her practically bankrupt Aunt from losing her crumbling family home. Sue also shows a level of maturity that is far beyond her years, especially when she’s trying to find out the truth about her mother’s life and death. But not more than would be in keeping with someone who lived through the tragedy of losing her mother in such a premature and emotionally charged way. Put this together with Aunt Coral’s eccentricities, addiction to shopping (among other things) and her fierce devotion to her niece, make these two a force to be reckoned with.

Into this mix, Crowe brings a group of minor characters, each of whom plays an important part in the story. We have Aunt Coral’s companion Delia, whose daughter Loudolle becomes Sue’s bane of existence as she snaps up the one boy Sue is interested in, her boss’ older son Icarus Fry. There’s also Aunt Coral’s lodger, Admiral Avery Little, who Coral is obviously interested in, romantically. And lastly we have Joe Fry, Icarus’ younger brother who is trying to get close to Sue. All of them come together regularly for the meetings of a writing group, which Coral has put together to help further Sue’s dream of becoming an author. Despite what seems like a large number of people to keep straight and the many injections of the past to compliment the action of the present, Crowe has modeled us a world that is lively and vibrant and about as fast-paced as the late 1980s can give us.

If there is anything that I would criticize here, it would be that I’m not sure that the late 80s is a wholly appropriate era for this story. It seems to me that a teenager of the 80s might be a bit more in touch with the outside world than Sue appears to be. While it makes sense that a dilapidated manse like Green Place probably wouldn’t have had a television set, even in the 80s, the residents all seem to be more than unusually locally insular. We never hear of anyone reading a national newspaper, or even listen to the radio. Now, I was a teenager in the 70s, albeit in America, and although I didn’t often read newspapers back then, I do recall that when I wasn’t watching (far too much) TV, I either had the radio on or was playing some kind of music, all the time. This included when I was deeply concentrating on writing poetry (yes, I was that foolish in my youth). Of course, I might be wrong about how life was in the UK and a whole decade later, but the lack of this outside stimulation for this era still felt a bit odd and out of character to me.

Finally, readers should remember that despite the bit of mystery and intrigue tossed in, this is essentially a humorous piece of fiction, which carefully straddles the adult and young adult genres (I believe some might call it a “new adult” novel). For this reason, having a nice, neat ending with little to no loose ends is par for the course. Overall, Crowe has given us one fun romp of a read that has enough twists and interesting nooks and crannies to suck in her readers, from start to finish. Crowe gives us characters we can have emotional connections with and a spritely writing style to pull it all together. For all this, one can only praise Crowe for a truly enjoyable first effort, and look forward to seeing what she gives us next. Taking into account my one problem with this book, I am warmly recommending it as a great choice for summer reading, with a strong four out of five stars.

Campari for Breakfast by Sara Crowe
Published by Doubleday, April 2014.
I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy.

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Campari for Breakfast
by Sara Crowe

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Written by Davida Chazan