The third American release by British author Jane Green, Bookends, is a mildly entertaining relationship comedy/drama that reads like an episode of Friends crossed with thirty-something. However, even the thrill I get from reading British vernacular like “naff” and “dodgy” couldn’t raise the novel’s rating above the average level.
Ten years after graduation, Catherine “Cath” Warner is still close to her university friends Si and Josh, as well as Josh’s wife, Lucy. But her best friend from school, her “soul mate,” Portia, is absent from the picture. The two women drifted apart after one shocking night when the beautiful but insecure Portia cruelly manipulated Josh’s feelings for her and broke his heart.
Cath has grown increasingly dissatisfied with her job in advertising, so when Lucy convinces her to take a huge risk and be her partner in a bookstore/café venture, Cath is able to realize a lifelong fantasy she never expected to pursue. Through their efforts in renovating and readying “Bookends” for opening, Cath meets a handsome real estate agent, James, who is only working in the business until he saves enough money to pursue his own dream as an artist. James seems to fancy Cath, but she decided years ago, after a disastrous affair with a married man, to stay away from romance. Her friends provide all of the love and support that she needs.
But when Portia, now a successful television writer, appears at Bookends’ grand opening and reenters the group, Si and Cath question her motives, especially when James starts acting suspiciously distant towards Lucy. There’s more trouble on the horizon as Si meets the man of his dreams, who instead turns out to be everyone’s nightmare. Watching her friends struggle, Cath takes comfort in her resolution to remain romantically uninvolved and thus invulnerable to pain. But as relationships shift and a tragedy rocks the group, Cath realizes that she has closed herself off from the joy and comfort that love can provide as well.
Cath’s first person narrative is less chatty and informal than those of the heroines in Green’s previous releases, Jemima J and Mr. Maybe, and therefore less charming as well. She remains a sympathetic heroine, however, because of her willingness to take the professional and financial risks to open Bookends, and her readiness to support and comfort her friends when they are in need. But her stubborn refusal to return James’ affections, primarily based on one bad relationship, doesn’t make sense, and her resistance to his charm is hard to fathom.
By making Lucy and Cath’s store successful almost immediately, Green misses the potential for some intriguing dramatic tension. Green is also limited by Cath’s first-person narrative, and weakens the novel by engaging in too much second-hand retelling. At various points in the story, Cath tells the reader about important events that happened to other characters, and without the viewpoint of the character in question the stories come off rather flat and preachy.
The misfortune of a secondary character, which motivates the lead character to finally take personal risks, is a plot that has been utilized before, and more successfully, in other novels, such as Marian Keyes’ superb Last Chance Saloon. Its awkward use in Bookends makes the story more maudlin than inspiring.
If you like your contemporary novels spiked with as much drama as comedy, you might enjoy spending time in Bookends. Other than putting me in touch with my own fantasies of opening a successful bookstore, the novel made little impression on me. With the preponderance of British Chick Lit authors, I’m starting to think that Jane Green is one name I can leave off my reading list in the future.