The Hidden Cottage by Erica James (Hatchette 2012)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
James’ earlier novels have won UK-based James Romantic Novel of the Year (Gardens of Delight, 2006) and a place on the Sunday Times top ten bestseller list (It’s the Little Things, 2009). James, who “divides her time between Cheshire and Lake Como in Italy”, has written novels set in both places, apparently striking up conversations with strangers to deliberately trawl for ideas.
More Maeve Binchy than Joanna Trollope, James is a good summer holiday read. A woman who self-confessedly finds love fickle, she nevertheless dishes it out for her readers. The Hidden Cottage is as unsustaining as a meal of candyfloss, but fun while it lasts. I suppose it’s an old-fashioned-style village romance novel, but with sex and cell-phones. As in any picturesque village drama, there’s a good sort, a new arrival (Darcy?) a gossip, a perfect wife, an arrogant manipulator, an unseen vicar (fashionably female), rose-covered cottages, elderly spinsters, dreams come true and dreams shattered. Throughout it all, a peacock wanders from house to house, leading us to the next cup of tea or glass of wine. There doesn’t seem to be unemployment in English villages these days, or any aftermath of foot’n’mouth disease, with enterprising residents setting up profitable businesses at the drop of a hat – literally, with a hat shop featuring. Good luck to them all.
But unfortunately James is inclined to tell rather than show her characters’ natures. And there’s moral rightness and justness related to most of the events and obstacles. Most of the conversations are fairly trite; actually, they’re the kind of conversations most people have most of the time.
“Expect the unexpected” is the mantra of the main male character, who is called, surprisingly for his decade and origins, Owen. He’s the one-time village schoolboy who returns home, not to family but to a place he had loved. The book is doesn’t really surprise; as readers we do expect the unexpected as a device to keep us keen. James’ “unexpected” is fairly predictable but does not necessarily disappoint. When did anyone’s adult children behave in a way that we might expect?
Oh, and there is an Aga.