Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Welcome to the café that never sleeps.
Day and night, Stella's Café opens its doors to the lonely and the lost, the morning people and the night owls. It's a place where everyone is always welcome, where life can wait at the door.
Meet Hannah and Mona: best friends, waitresses, dreamers. They love working at Stella's - the different people they meet, the small kindnesses exchanged. But is it time to step outside and make their own way in life?
Come inside and spend twenty-four hours at Stella's Café, where one day might just be enough to change your life . . .
Many thanks to Orion via NetGalley for my copy of The 24 Hour Cafe to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Libby Page burst onto the scene writing one of the most heartwarming stories of 2018, there was a lot of buzz around it and deservedly so. The Lido was a gem of a book and the film rights have already been sold to it. I loved every minute of it so I was very eager to see how her second book would compare. The 24 Hour Cafe is very different especially in the manner in which it is told as it covers the comings and goings over a 24 hour period in Stella's café opposite Liverpool Station in London. Various characters from all walks of life enter and leave over the time and each chapter is dedicated to an hour but also at the same time it covers a 12-hour shift in the lives of our two principal characters Hannah and Mona.
It did take me quite some time to get used to the ebbs and flows in the story, and I could see what the author was trying to do to develop the story overall, but the first half was a bit of a slog at times for me. But once I reached the halfway point, and Mona steps in to share her viewpoints and opinions from her perspective, I felt the book overall definitely picked up and I really began to enjoy it. It's not the same as The Lido, that bit of magic so evident in book one went slightly amiss here but is still a lovely read and as I neared the end I felt the themes of friendship and the messages the author was trying to portray came across very well.
Hannah begins her double shift of 12 hours at the café which will cover from midnight up until the lunchtime rush. This quiet time in the dead of night allows her thoughts to run riot. She is not in the best of places and it took me some time to realise this and it was only as I neared the end of her section that I could see what was coming and really she had no way of avoiding it. She had to navigate her way through it in the hopes of maybe coming out stronger on the other side. Hannah is trying to get over another failed relationship but in a series of recollections and flashbacks the reader comes to know it's not just another casual dumping and there is a lot more behind it. Hannah is deep and before I understood what was going on with her, I just found her to be all doom and gloom and that she didn't seem happy with anything at all in her life. She complained an awful lot and there didn't seem to be any ray of light about her. Not even the fantastic friendship with flatmate and co-worker Mona, which has almost developed into a sisterhood, seems to be going well for her. Hannah seemed to be constantly moaning that her dreams of making it big and using her performing arts degree have failed to become a reality despite her trying so hard.
But she has been changed by the breakup with Jaheim and, like the customers who frequent the café once or many times, Hannah is hiding secrets. If we had only had Hannah's perspective it would have been very one sided and I would have taken all her opinions, notions and judgements as gospel. But it's when Mona gets her chance to talk to the reader and explain things that you do accept that there are two sides to every story and that both should be listened to. Hannah is hurt and angry for many reasons and as she is someone who avoids conflict at all costs you do wonder did she bring a lot of it on herself? By the conclusion of the book you come to appreciate that Hannah is a very complex character who wants her break in life but maybe needs to be more willing to accept the realities of what life throws at us.
Mona was the opposite to Hannah and for me a complete breath of fresh air. I liked her much more, and yes she may have been that little bit sneaky in not revealing everything to Hannah, but I didn't hold that against her or feel the need to criticise her for it. For Mona too had been hurt by Hannah's actions, feelings of isolation and of secrecy pervaded. Mona always kept her long terms goals at the forefront of her mind and kept striving to achieve them whereas Hannah became lost and stuck. Their friendship had been altered by an outsider of sorts but you willed the comfort and warmth of the café and its stability and reassuring presence to do something for both of them like it seems to do for so many others. I felt every bit of Mona's excitement, fear and trepidation at what awaited her but I felt she couldn't move forward until the past had been resolved. Her inner turmoil and loneliness felt realistic and were just like feelings we all experience and she was a character I really identified with and felt for. She was attempting to strive forward but she could feel so many things holding her back.
The fragments of customer stories were fascinating but as I have mentioned I desperately wanted more from the young boy attempting to stay awake all night, not being able to order a decent meal but yet he meets a fellow customer who sees something worthwhile in him. To the young woman staring into space ignoring the phone ringing. Why is she doing this? John, the Big Issue seller who sits outside the café through rain and shine. The young couple who hold hands across the table as one prepares to leave when all he wants to do is stay. The older couple so deeply in love after coming through so much who sit in the café as they await their train. The young bride fearful her day will be ruined and the many office workers that come and go, one in particular who can't keep hiding from the truth. All such varied, impressive and thought provoking people whose stories I was desperate to delve deeper into. But I suppose they flit in and out of the café whereas the café remains solid and staid and maybe it just wasn't the right opportunity for in such in-depth exploration despite me as a reader craving it.
The 24-Hour Cafe has an absolutely stunning last line that was so perfectly composed and very apt considering all the emotions and life changing events the two women had been through. I sat back and contemplated those few simple words that said so much and it made me understand completely the subject matter of the book even further. Yes, this story may not have completely lived up to the very high expectations I had set for it and I am sure many other readers will delve into this book with the same assumptions but on reflection I don't think it is fair to compare the two books and expect to get the same feeling inside.
The writing is elegant and honest but for me, especially in relation to the first half more so than the second, I think there were just too many characters to familiarise myself with and maybe the author felt this too as the number we are introduced to in part two was significantly reduced. I felt I was only getting minute snippets into the lives of people whereas I wanted to know an awful lot more. The reader was given a series of snapshots into their lives as they sat in the café for whatever length of time. I understand the transient nature of a café, and that customers come and go, but it just felt too brief as if I was reading a series of short stories which never actually equalled the length of said short story. Having said all that the second half more than redeemed itself and I found everything becoming more concise instead of too many paragraphs that felt extra to requirements.
The 24-Hour Cafe is a gorgeous read which raised a lot of sentiments and feelings regarding friendship that I could identify with but could never fully form into the correct words. Libby Page managed to do that several times and in doing so helped me come to some important realisations. I thought this quote was excellent 'That however close you think you are to someone, you are still ultimately on your own, You might have been walking comfortably down the same path together but at any point that path can diverge, You won't know who will veer off in what direction, or whether it will be possible to follow.’ This is so true, you can have all the friendships in the world but at times they can alter and change as one person may seek another direction but will people sooner or later come back to each other. Will Hannah and Mona find their way back to the friendship which has sustained them through so many challenging times as they seek to make their dreams a reality? Read The 24-Hour Cafe to discover all the answers, Libby Page is certainly a very good writer and it will be interesting to see what road she will venture down when it comes to book number three.
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