Campari for Breakfast
By Sara Crowe
Doubleday, £14.99 hardcover, also available as an e-book
Imagine if you took Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle, added a dash of Mavis Cheek, a pinch of Nancy Mitford, and a smidgen of Northanger Abbey, and threw it all into a blender set to froth. That, I’d hazard to guess, describes the genesis of Campari for Breakfast, the debut novel from Sara Crowe, known to many as an award winning actress of stage and screen.
Crowe assembles all the classic ingredients: several generations of an eccentric family, secrets galore, a massive country pile that’s crumbling at the edges (and in the middle), jolly lodgers, literary ambitions, brooding menfolk, and a young woman whose arrival is destined to change everyone’s lives for the better.
Seventeen-year old Sue Bowl, still reeling from her mother’s suicide, finds it reprehensible that her father’s already taken up with the comely Ivana. As she says, “Mum’s memory is not even misty. She is still receiving post.”
Sue decamps to her aunt Cora, doyenne of Green Place, a crumbling pile she shares with her companion Delia (and occasionally Delia’s daughter, the devastatingly attractive Loudolle), and a lodger – though she wishes he was so much more – in the form or retired admiral Avery Little.
Cora has only recently found out that she’s actually Sue’s great aunt. Her much younger sister, Buddleia wasn’t her sister at all, but the outcome of a clandestine liaison between her genuine sibling Coral (also deceased) and. . . . well, that is one of the many mysteries propelling us through the novel.
The narration moves between Cora’s voice, via her entries in Commonplace book, begun in 1929, when she was seven, and Sue, who describes the events of 1987 as they unfold. Sue has literary pretentions and fancies herself a novelist, but her command of English is shocking. And I do mean shocking. I kept flicking back to check her age, amazed and appalled that a girl of seventeen should be such a poor speller with such a tenuous grasp on the proper meanings of words. As for her grasp of narrative, suffice to say that her short-story-in-progress, Brackencliffe, set in the seventeenth century (her personal favourite) makes the Mysteries of Udolpho look like a contender for the Man Booker Prize.
This, of course, is the stuff of comedy gold, affording moments of communion between reader and author, such as when Sue refers to “a fete worse than death.” We’ve all been to one of those! And once or twice it feels as though Sue might know a thing or two after all. Criticised for using the word “nemecyst” instead of nemesis, she retorts, “But I mean ‘nemecyst,’ which is a cross between ‘nemesis’, meaning ‘adversary’, and ‘cyst’, meaning ‘bag bursting with poisons.’”
I can’t wait to use this word myself.
The laughs ratchet up as Sue’s prose turns a deeper, darker purple, calling to mind the heroine of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, Angel, so deluded about her own talents. But again, it stretched my credulity to believe that as recently as 1987, a young woman – even one from a smallish town – could have made it to seventeen and remained so naïve and so vague about the facts of life, sexual and otherwise. My biggest criticism of the novel is Sue’s voice, which seems to run away from the author. One minute she says something truly profound about the human condition and in the next she’s babbling like a child. It’s jarring, and tested my patience.
The real stars of this book are Coral, Cameo and Buddleia. All are full of humanity and compassion, but leavened with enough foibles to keep them from being cloying. Crowe is adroit at creating pointed moments that’ll lodge something in your eye. When, as a child, Sue dashes off the track during a race she’s winning, straight into her mother’s arms, Buddleia consoles her by saying, “If I were running and saw you standing there, I’d have done exactly the same thing. How canny of you to know, it’s not about winning – it’s about loving.”And for all her zaniness, Cora is a kind and loyal guardian who always finds a way to compliment and comfort her great niece in times of trouble (or literary insanity).
Sue gets to give back (and prove her debt to Flora Poste) when she discovers Cora sobbing over her unpaid bills. She resolves to help set things right – starting with an auction of the older woman’s more than two hundred pairs of shoes, and continuing through home improvements and an expansion of the room rental business. Cora, it should be noted, only rents to men. She is ever hopeful.
Despite a sense of déjà-vu, despite my difficulties with Sue’s uneven voice, Campari for Breakfast proved more fun than not. It’s filled with delicious little gems, such as the woman who was “a great valuer of life’s little things. In winter she liked to leave one of her feet out of the covers in bed, just for the sheer pleasure of tucking it back in again.” And when Sue gets her first proper kiss from a young man who’s crazy about her, she says: “It was like all the money in the universe flew to my account at the love bank, and I had gone from an account in deficit, to a gold account with cards.”
Even the nastier characters are imbued with humanity. And it goes without saying that all the mysteries and loose ends are tied up with festive ribbons by the end. All in all, an enjoyable read that’s bound to brighten any holiday or long journey.