Call me shallow but I was drawn to Sara Crowe’s debut novel by the Where’d You Go, Bernadette? style cover. Ah, publicists, I am your dream. Although comparisons to Marie Semple would be unfair, I wasn’t disappointed by this debut novel.
It’s 1987. Sue’s mother, Buddleia, has recently committed suicide. Her father has a new girlfriend, Ivana, who Sue can’t stand, so Sue has moved from Titford to Egham to live with her Aunt Coral. Aunt Coral, 24 years older than her mother, lives in a country pile called Green Place.
It’s a grade two listed building, so big it has to be split into sections like countries within a continent. The West Wing is the only part of the house that’s heated, so I have to wear my coat in the rest of the house as if I am going outside.
Aunt Coral lives with her companion, Delia:
She is a hearty, bohemian sort of woman, and often swims in the nudey. Her skin tone is peachy and fragrant, like a Victorian soap ad, and her hair looks freshly brunette, though her complexion appears born fair…she’s an excellent and loving companion to Aunt Coral even if she does say ‘fuck’ in her sleep.
And the Admiral, who lives in the East Wing because he’s ‘a Naval man, and prefers the great outdoors’. Aunt Coral has a huge crush on him to which he’s completely oblivious.
Sue, 17, has a number of problems to deal with: why did her mum commit suicide? When will her dad and Ivana split up? Who will read her writing, which is more important to her than anything? How will she get Icarus Fry, son of Mrs Fry her employer at ‘Toastie’ the café, to notice her?
The inhabitants of Green Place try to help and so Egham Writing Group is formed and they all take part in writing exercises and write stories which they critique for each other, some of which address some of Sue’s other problems. The group is also attended by Joe Fry, one of Icarus’ brothers, which complicates Sue’s love-life (or lack of) further.
Between Sue’s story and extracts from the writing group are pages from Aunt Coral’s Commonplace Book. We are told at the start of the novel:
The Commonplace Book was not only a diary, but a scrap book and book of wisdom. It was often given to encourage learning and interests in children. A most personal journal in which quotes and comments are collected along with cuttings, letters, recipes. Essentially one’s own book of life.
Aunt Coral’s book pieces together the story of her and Buddleia’s life and, of course, there’s a big fat secret buried somewhere that will take Coral and Sue to piece things together to get to the truth of their family history.
Campari for Breakfast is a quirky, warm-hearted novel that reminded me of Araminta Hall’s Dot. It’s the story of three generations of women, a big house and secrets that destroy. I found the pace of the novel slightly uneven – it seemed to slow in the middle and then race towards the conclusion – however, this didn’t prevent me from enjoy a decent debut. I’ll certainly be reading whatever Crowe writes next.
Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.