Summer at Shell Cottage (by Lucy Diamond)

The first novel I read by Lucy Diamond was about a year ago, and I liked it so much that I put a few more of her books on my wishlist. The style was a bit informal but the characterisation was good; the broad theme was of family relationships, a genre that I usually like very much. I was delighted to be given this one last Christmas, and despite it being quite long - not far off 500 pages in paperback - I devoured it in just a couple of days.

‘Summer at Shell Cottage’ features an extended family: Olivia and Alec had a son, Robert and daughter Freya. By the time the main part of the story opens, Freya, who works as a doctor, is married to Victor, who works for the police and they have three children. Robert, who left his job to write a novel, is married to Harriet - a teacher - who has a teenage daughter, Molly. They all congregate each summer for a couple of weeks in Devon, in the family’s ‘Shell Cottage’.

The first chapter rushes us through the decades, beginning with Olivia and Alec first seeing the cottage at the start of their honeymoon, and ending, a few pages later, with their children and grandchildren briefly introduced. Olivia is contented and all seems to be going well, but as this summer approaches, things start to go wrong.

We then meet other members of the family, and quickly realise that the ‘happy families’ image is a mask for a great many stresses. Harriet thinks herself rather dumpy and old-fashioned. Freya is struggling to cope with life in general and is aware that she’s drinking too much. Robert evidently has a secret which he’s ashamed to tell Harriet, and Molly is in the first throes of a love affair which her mother knows nothing about…

Olivia, slowly recovering from one shock, receives another which throws her entire world out of kilter. And the scene is set for a fast-paced character-driven story with several sub-plots that intertwine well, and which kept me turning pages long after I really needed to be doing other things. I found Robert and Victor a little two-dimensional and had easily guessed Robert’s secret, but I liked both Freya and Harriet very much and could sympathise with both.

As with the first book I read by this author, the style is quite informal at times, almost stream-of-consciousness in places. Different chapters take different viewpoints, so we see the family dynamics well. Nine-year-old Libby hero-worships her step-cousin Molly; six-year-old Teddy is an absolute delight. Victor loves to rescue people and is immensely brave, but he’s totally unaware how stressed his wife is. They felt like real people, and I cared about them all.

Towards the end it was even more difficult to put the book down, as revelations and explanations begin. While some are predictable, as are people’s reactions, there was one shock which I had not seen coming - though perhaps I should have done.

Overall I liked it very much.

Essentially it’s about ordinary people going through a difficult summer, but they care about each other and are all, at heart, likeable people. Perhaps some would find it slow-moving or caricatured, but I thought it an enjoyable and quite uplifting read. If you like character-driven women’s fiction, and are looking for something light and undemanding as a summer read, I would definitely recommend it.

Review copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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