It’s snowing, it’s Christmas – and things are not going right

Review: Vivien Horler

Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop, by Jenny Colgan (Sphere/ Jonathan Ball)

Jenny Colgan is a best-selling writer of romantic comedy of whom I had never heard until I read Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop. If this is anything to go by, she’s a delightful writer.

And if you’ve never experienced Christmas in a snowy Edinburgh (I haven’t), this may inspire plans for your festive season this year.

Carmen is 30, unmarried, and working in a struggline bookshop in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Because she earns so little, she is living in a basement room in her lawyer sister’s beautiful house, along with sister Sofia, Sofia’s husband and their four children.

Carmen was in a bit of a bind and asked Sofia if she could stay for a couple of months, but it’s been a year now, and Sofia and her husband are getting fretful. Sofia is about to go back to work after maternity leave, and needs Carmen’s room for a new nanny.

In fact the only member of the family who is unequivocally keen on Carmen staying is eight-year-old Phoebe, who says anguishedly when she hears Carmen is to move out: “Pippa’s got mummy, Jack’s got daddy, and I have you.”

Carmen’s feeling a bit bleak about it herself. It’s not just about a home, there’s also her love life. She’s fallen for Oke, a Brazilian researcher at the university, and he seems to enjoy her company too, yet he makes no move whatsoever to take things further.

On a chilly Valetine’s Day afternoon, shortly before he’s due to leave on a six-month research trip to the Brazilian rain forest, she makes a move. Dressed in a black silky teddy, she gets into Oke’s bed, and waits for him to come home from the university.

Oke is taken aback. He is concerned she might be cold, and looks at her pityingly. Yes, he certainly wants to make love to her – we know this but Carmen doesn’t – but not in his poky freezing digs. Humiliated and furious, Carmen gets dressed and flees.

And then Oke goes to Brazil.

So all in all, things are pretty dire.

In the meantime, there is concern among people running useful shops – like the bookshop and the hardware shop in the Old Town street – that a pushy entrepreneur is planning to take over their leases and sell Scottish tat to tourists – plastic Loch Ness monsters, sporrans and Highland bonnets.

When the entrepreneur does take over the hardware shop, banishing buckets and brooms and insisting on loud recordings of bagpipe music being played all day, Carmen despairs.

But look, this is a romantic comedy, so we know it’s likely to come right in the end. There are a few things that prevent this novel descending into the late winter slush that Carmen and her friend Idra have to wade through.

One is that it is funny. Colgan gives her characters delightful turns of phrase. When Carmen tells Idra that Oke left thinking she was a slutbag, Idra reassures her, saying she can’t be a slutbag as she hasn’t had sex for ages.

Carmen responds dolefully: “That’s even worse, like I’m a totally virgin slutbag.”

There are the characters, including Sofia’s family and the new nanny, who turns out to be former (male) soldier with only one arm, who Carmen quite fancies.

And then there is Edinburgh itself, beautifully evoked, in the run-up to Christmas: frosty, crisp – well, freezing; full of red-cheeked people dashing about in the snow, drinking hot chocolate and enjoying the Christmas lights twinkling into the night.

This is a charming read.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *