And as she was still smiling over his logical, obvious phone-log cataloguing, as she typed in his password ‘ilovearsenal’, it had slapped her there, right between the eyes, ‘you have 1 picture message’. She wasn’t sure what made her do it. She’d never felt the urge before, or maybe she didn’t decide to do it, it just clicked up, but it was then, as she read the words ‘Wish you were here’, she realised she was staring at someone’s impeccably groomed vagina.
Eve’s fiancé, Liam, has cheated on her and she’s thrown him out. Supported by her best friend and work colleague, Daisy, as well as her mum and dad and older sister, Harriet, she’s functioning but far from over it. Two main problems present themselves: the first is Marmite, the dog Eve and Liam bought together. Liam wants him, Eve’s refusing to give him up. The second is Christmas. Eve spends Christmas with her family, the day playing out in stages honed over the years. Last year this was altered somewhat when Liam proposed to her on Christmas morning. Unable to face the day in the same house, memories of the previous year playing out, she declares she’s spending Christmas alone.
Her family are horrified but Eve goes ahead, combining some saved holiday from work and the Christmas period, to allow her a month off work. Deciding she wants to develop a skill, she books herself on a pottery course and, at the last minute, finds a houseboat to stay in while she’s there.
Before Eve books the course, the reader’s been introduced to another character, Greg, who lives in Pangbourne, where the course is taking place. He’s the local vet with a penchant for reading fantasy novels on his e-reader and a secret that sees him disappearing as soon as phone calls are received.
Inevitably Eve and Greg’s paths are going to cross. This involves hilarious combinations of Marmite, falling off the boat, geese and burnt dinners. But Eve’s not over Liam and Greg’s secretive so there’s plenty of scope for conflict and misunderstandings. Blake utilises this well. Several chapters are told from one character’s point of view and then re-told from the other’s. This is difficult to do well – the only other really successful example I can think of is Her by Harriet Lane – but Blake exploits the gaps between the two character’s assumptions and the conflict in their lives which they’ve hidden from each other.
‘They won’t be lies,’ Greg said, taking a step forward.
‘That’s what they always say,’ Eve said, Liam’s face replacing Greg’s in her mind as she spat out the next sentence, all the things she should have said to him. ‘I’ve been messed around before so it’s really not a big surprise.’
Greg didn’t reply for a moment. ‘I’m not “they”,’ he said in a quiet voice.
‘We barely know each other anyway,’ Eve said, satisfied to see him flinch.
‘They won’t be lies.’
‘That’s what they always say. I’ve been messed around before so it’s really not a big surprise.’
Messed around? Is that what he had done? He didn’t want to be lumped in with these anonymous men. ‘I’m not “they”,’ he said, anger swelling in his chest.
‘We barely know each other anyway.’
He didn’t hear her then, replaying that sentence, the sting of it, over and over. He thought back to the times they’d spent together; their closeness hadn’t simply been in his head. She wasn’t even letting him tell her what was going on and suddenly he felt as if he was twelve years old again and the world wasn’t fair and he wasn’t being heard.
As with Blake’s first novel, How to Get a (Love) Life, How to Stuff Up Christmas is laugh-out-loud funny. The humour mostly comes from Eve’s parents (who reminded me of Bridget Jones’ parents too), her inability to cook, and the escapades of Gerald, the husband of Maddie who runs the pottery class from her house. The book’s tightly plotted and deals with a number of serious themes – infidelity, illness, betrayal, men’s roles – whilst being entertaining. It also includes a number of recipes (a nod to Nora Ephron?) which become more complex as Eve’s cooking improves. I definitely fancy having a go at the Christmas Loaf and maybe some mulled wine to go with it. A smart, funny, heart-warming Christmas read.
Thanks to Corvus for the review copy.