Book review: With Love From Wish & Co by Minnie Darke

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Life is so big and vast and full of people, things and events that we often forget that its rising and falling often rests on the smallest and most transitory of moments.

Take the moment when seriously talented gift-giver, Marnie Fairchild, the protagonist of Minnie Darke’s latest emotionally resonant rom-com novel, All the Best From Wish & Co, who’s climbed from disgraced poverty to operating, through hard work, canny investment and a dedication to her goals, a successful business offering bespoke gift-buying for the wealthy who are too busy to do it themselves, make one small distracted mistake that has ripples through her life and the rarefied world in which she operates.

Normally Marnie, who was once part of the moneyed elite of Alexandra Park before her father’s gambling addition sent the family backwards at a cataclysmic rate, has worked fiendishly hard to get back to some semblance of a successful life, finding a scholarship at a private school, reconnecting with her estranged, now-dead grandfather to whom she grew especially close, and founding a business that’s very existence depends on a world that once spurned her.

She has grand plans to go bigger and better still by buying her grandfather’s old, half-burned heritage store which will give Wish & Co a home befitting its lofty and beautiful sensibilities, and is careful to not let anything get in the way of that.

That is, until word comes to her that the shop is going on the market – her uncle, who owns the property, is a ruthless Fairchild through and through and refuses to cut her any special deals – and consumed by the closeness of her dreams being realised, Marnie makes one teeny-tiny slip up …

Of course she had been careful. She was always careful. Careful was practically her middle name. There was nothing to worry about. So, she didn’t. She just flicked ponytail out from the collar of her coat and hurried down Rathbone Street in the direction of Fairchild & Sons. (P. 51)

It’s a small uncharacteristic error that sends seismic reverberations through her life, and that of her biggest customer, Brian Charlesworth who, in common with many of her customers with complicated lives, gets Marnie to send gifts to his wife and his mistress.

No issues there usually unless his fortieth wedding anniversary and his mistress Leona Quick’s birthday both fall on the same day, an aligning of the celebratory stars that sees each woman get the other’s gifts.

Leona is bemused, Suzane furious and heartbroken and Brian is kicked out of the family home, his life is tatters, and his spirit broken, a sorrowful state of affairs so chasmic that it threatens to swallow Marnie, her dreams and her business right along with it.

The only good news in the midst of this chaos?

Marnie meets Brian’s son Luke, a talented woodworker who hasn’t gone down the same financially-obsessed route as his father, and who finds that, though he is horrified that Marnie would effectively aid and abet adultery, even at a gift-giving distance, that he actually likes her.

He senses behind the desperate need to make long-held dreams come true is a woman who means well and simply wants unconditional love and support and a meaningful life like everyone else.

In common with her earlier novels, Star-crossed and The Lost Love Song, All the Best From Wish & Co is about connection between people, the kind so profound that it asks them to consider what they are willing to give, or give up, in the name of love.

While All the Best From Wish & Co is undoubtedly heartwarming and life-affirming, infused with a fairytale sense that even the very worst of situations can be turned around, it is grounded, as are all Darke’s wondrously emotionally substantial novels, with a realistic view of humanity and life that doesn’t presume terrible mistakes and flawed decisions can be fixed with a sprinkle of rom-com fairy dust.

Marnie for instance goes through the absolute ringer.

She has to work hard to save her business which means figuring out a way to get Brian back onside, who blames her for everything – Luke, points out, at one stage, that the dagger that plunged itself into his parents’ marriage was held by Brian, and Brian alone – work out whether dating Luke is a good idea given who he is and the family be belongs too and whether she has a hope in hell of buying the shop that means so much to her sentimentally and to the hoped-for future of her business.

It’s a lot to figure out, and while All the Best From Wish & Co follows many of the narrative twists and turns of the rom-com genre, it never pretends that the resolution to Marnie, and Brian’s woes, is going to be easy or realised with minimal effort and a metric ton of wish fulfilment.

Because Luke was standing right in front of her, the fingers of one hand just lifting the curving neckline of her dress, and that was where they were when they kissed each other for the first time, the light inside the thick, opaque walls of the pod fading in and out quicker as Marnie’s body responded to his. She thought of going back to the wishing well to toss in another coin, just to make sure that the idea didn’t occur to him to go home to his own bed, alone. (P. 271)

It’s fairytale-ish true but it’s not simplistic or light and fripperous, with the novel insightfully recognising that even the grandest dreams or the loveliest and most buoyant of connections can be derailed by one small mistake with gigantic ripples that leaves devastation, not easily fixed, in its messy wake.

It doesn’t make light of the mistake or its repercussions by pretending it can also be fixed with a deftly-placed conversation or some narratively convenient machinations.

Rather Darke puts her characters well and truly through their paces, making them pay for their “sins” but equally making it heartwarmingly clear that some form of redemption is well at hand, even if its grittily hard-earned.

There’s a unique pleasure in reading a rom-com novel such as All the Best From Wish & Co simply because while there are happy-ever-afters, they only come after each of the characters have faced the flaws in their humanity and their small but sizably consequential life choices, struggled to overcome the mess they have made of things, and come out the other side, giving real emotional muscularity to a story that admits small mistakes have huge consequences but that even so, that doesn’t life isn’t redeemable nor capable of being something equally big and good too.

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