Reviewed by Emma Crowley
As the Prosecco chills and Bing Crosby croons, Jen Barker just knows that her long-term boyfriend is about to propose. But instead of a diamond ring nestled in her champagne flute, Jen finds cold flat rejection. Her once perfect life and dreams of a husband and family seem even further from reach.
A working holiday to the Swiss Alps with her younger sister Jody might not be the Christmas Jen had it mind, but it offers her the chance to recharge her batteries and recover from heartbreak.
When Jen meets handsome ski instructor Jon Zutter her hopes for a happy-ever-after seem within her grasp again. Jon is kind and gorgeous and as they bond over Sachetorte at the picturesque Cake Café, Jen thinks he might just be her perfect man. But a relationship with him comes with a catch – and there are some things even cake can’t fix.
As the snow falls and Christmas approaches, could this be the place that restores Jen Barker’s faith in love?
I was delighted to see Sue Watson was treating us to a Christmas book this year considering she had already published a more serious book We'll Always Have Paris earlier on this year. The Christmas Cake Café is not that long but I wouldn't consider it a novella as it was a bit longer than what that type of read would be. The café as mentioned in the title is not the focus of the book, more a long held aspiration for our main female protagonist Jen so those expecting the book to be mostly set there will have to put that aside. I expected glorious descriptions of Christmas cakes etc but that wasn't the case. Yet I wasn't in the slightest bit disappointed as the book takes place for the most part in a ski resort in Switzerland and Sue excelled at creating such a vivid, wintry, Christmas atmosphere that I soon forgot the café was but a dream.
This book proved to be a funny, light Christmas read that wasn't too taxing or demanding of your attention. It was something that you could dip in and out of if you were under time pressure but would still be easily to keep up with the threads of the plot. I read it in a few sittings and it gave me that warm, cosy feeling inside. There was a good storyline here, if at times I felt we skipped through weeks/months very suddenly and maybe just too much was packed in and it might have worked even better than it did by becoming a fuller length novel. That said the story of Jen coming back to her own self as she turns 40 after being put down for so long was an enjoyable read.
In the prologue it is Christmas Eve and Jen is out to dinner with her long term partner Tim. Things have been a bit lacklustre on the romance front lately with everything just that bit stale and needing some spicing up. Jen is about to turn 40 on Christmas Day and she feels the next big step surely has to happen now, Tim has to be about to propose in the romantic setting of the restaurant with the Christmas decorations all around, Christmas music playing in the background and tasty food on their plates Jen couldn't be more wrong as Tim lands a bombshell and uses the age old cliché of our relationship has run its course. What Jen thinks, and to be honest I wouldn't blame her, after investing 10 years in a relationship surely a ring is the next logical step. I felt so sorry for Jen as she had wasted so much time and effort in a relationship that she should have realised earlier was clearly going nowhere. 'My throat closed up and I couldn't speak, breathe or swallow - my whole world had crashed, taking my past and future with it. No sparkly ring in my glass no flower framed wedding photos of the two of us smiling, no bouquet thrown in the air, my life fused with his'. To say Jen is devastated is an understatement.
The prologue gave us a nice introduction as to where Jen's state of mind is when we reconnect with her 10 months later and it is only as the book unfolds we realise maybe said relationship wasn't all a bed of roses and she was probably better off out of it. I know that's not much to her when she is wallowing in misery and looking to the future where she thought she would be married with children and living in a nice house. She feels she is not getting any younger and that biological clock is ticking and another stage in a women's life that some may dread is firmly knocking on the door.
Jen had been a creature of comfort and routine. She had been meandering along in her job working as a librarian but now her life plan has been thrown off course and I could feel her desperation, loneliness and general confusion as to where her life path would take her. But I suppose she really needed to come terms with everything and realise life is never simple and plain sailing without obstacles thrown in our paths. She needed to buck up, move on and reset and evaluate what she would do next. Things are often sent to challenge us for the better. She had been under Tim's spell and control for too long and now was Jen's time to shine. Thankfully in steps Jen's half sister Jody and she was a great addition to the story. She was a nurse and always said what she thought and was never afraid to tell Jen a few home truths that needed to be out in the open. Jody presents Jen with the perfect solution – OK so it may have been short term but it was better than nothing. Take six months with Jody and her friends and work in a ski resort in Switzerland over the winter season. This could be the very life changing shake up that Jen so desperately needed to get her out of her funk. Who knows what could possibly happen on the ski slopes?
The book really took off once we got to Switzerland and it was great to see an author using a different location for a Christmas book. I have never been to Switzerland but now having finished this story I feel I have. The pictures were so vivid in my head of log fires, the hot tub on the balcony, chalets, the ski slopes and hot ski instructors, the snow and horse drawn carriages, the magical lights, the decorations and Christmas food not to mention the Gluhwein. Jen feels 'I could do a lot of thinking somewhere like Switzerland, all that pure white snow, like a blank canvas to write a new life on. What did I have to lose?'. Bit by bit Jen learns to let go and just embrace life and go with the flow with some hilarious results – the nightclub scene is one that springs to mind! All the girls want to work hard but party even harder and it was enjoyable to read of their exploits. It's only when handsome ski instructor Jon makes an appearance that the fun began to take a back seat and some romance came into the story. I did think this aspect of the storyline became very rushed and at times it was a bit forced. There seemed to be gaps in the time-line where we jumped forward a few weeks into the season and I wanted to know what had happened in between. Due to the short nature of the book I felt that's why everything concerning Jon happened far too quickly and I did think it needed alot more development. To go from having no man at all and floundering around romantically and then rushing head long into something that perhaps had more to it than meets the eye seemed a bit unrealistic. I understand 'holiday romances' but still here it just didn't sit well with me.
I enjoyed the first half of the book with all the setting up, descriptions and getting to know the characters but the second half felt rushed and it could have done with becoming a full length novel. One positive was there was plenty all about Christmas itself, and the idea of the Christmas Cake Café was a nice touch even if it wasn't the dominant theme of the book. This quote sums up Jen perfectly 'I'm not a people pleaser these days, I'm more of a Jenny pleaser' Jen needed to undergo a transformation in order to move on with her life and Switzerland, Jody and her friends helped her with that and for the most part this was an enjoyable read. The ending was lovely and I think there could be more to come from these characters in the future.
The Christmas Cake Cafe was a nice read but maybe not the most memorable of the Christmas books I have read so far this year. Too much was packed into too short a space and it lost the flow. It is grand for a few hours curled up on the couch and is worth a read. It could have been amazing, yes it was festive and had a good theme, but for me I preferred Sue Watson's previous Christmas releases.
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Christmas Cake Café to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.