There appears to be a neverending streak of cosy Christmas noels out there.
Many of them are delightfully written, giving us 300 or so pages in which to sink into a world, usually composed of a quirky but loving English village, a shop of some kind that usually serves comfort food and a person nursing past hurt that wants to find love or community or preferably both, which is a far cry from the grinding reality of our day-to-day lives.
The attraction is clear – who among us hasn’t craved re-invention, unconditional love and acceptance, and a chance to realise life’s full love-filled potential?
The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop delivers us to just such a magical place, introducing us to Emma, a 36-year-old woman who moved to the fictional town of Warkton-by-the-sea, situated about twenty minutes from the very real community of Alnwick, six or so years after a profound personal tragedy caused her to reassess her life and seek fulfilment somewhere other than the town where some painful memories lay.
Her move has been a largely successful one, with a best friend in Bev (and her husband Pete), and friendships with many of the chocolate shop customers, all of whom give Emma a reassuring sense that she belongs in her new community and that moving there all those years ago was the exact right thing to do.
“Four o’clock, Christmas Eve afternoon, the till was pinging, the shop door chiming, and still the queue of last-minute shoppers continued to grow. Emma, proud owner of this gorgeous little chocolate shop in the harbour village of Warkton-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, and her assistant, Holly, were buzzing about like Christmas elves. In fact, they looked very much like elves, dressed as they were in their festive jumpers, Holly with a Christmas pudding across her chest and Emma red-nosed reindeer.” (P. 4)
So far, so warm and cosy.
Emma, naturally enough, is still caught up in the afterwash of grief, having walled herself off emotionally some time ago to such an extent that her life consists of running the shop, with all the attendant stresses and joys that brings, seeing her family and friends and walks on the beach with her dog Alfie.
She is most definitely an emotional island and so when the handsome Max turns up on the beach one day and kisses her – only in novels like The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop do strangers kiss each other without restraining orders being put in place – it’s a seismic shock for her closely-ordered world and a reminder that maybe there is some living still to be done.
It is a given, and not even remotely a spoiler, that Max will go on to be the love of her life and change and transform in ways she had long abandoned as a possibility, all of which of which ticks one of the main boxes in any of these food-infused cosy Christmas romances, and reading how Emma’s life is changed for the better provides, like it does with any of the books in this understandably crowded genre, much of the pleasure that comes from reading The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop.
However, and this is where this review is going to feel like a metaphorical kitten being kicked, these stories only work when a few key things are in place – you need a rich and complete sense of worldbuilding, characters that, though they may be cardboard cutouts still feel reasonably well-formed, and some genuine emotional resonance.
It’s not simply enough to put all the cliches and tropes of the cosy Christmas romance genre together and hope they work in some sort of pleasing fashion but that feels, much of the time, like what Caroline Roberts has done.
The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop too often feels like an exercise in box ticking.
Quaint, picturesque English village by the sea? TICK. Lovelorn, sad and lonely protagonist looking for hope and redemption? TICK. A found family that provides unconditional love, support and healing? TICK. A happy-ever-after fairytale ending that defies grim reality? TICK, TICK AND TICK.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this; people, and yes I count myself happily among them, read these books precisely they offer consummate escape from the realities at a time of the year which is supposed to be magically diversionary in every possible way.
It’s not that The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop doesn’t deliver this in some sort of fashion; it most definitely does and as an escape it feels like just what the festive doctor ordered.
Where it falls down, unfortunately, is in the quality of the writing which delivers oddly-stilted dialogue, unrealistically played-out situations where problems or misunderstandings are resolved in paragraphs, not pages, and with minimal consequence, and characters who feel like they are simply going through their trope-heavy paces.
“She got out of the truck, let Alfie out from the back, and the pair of them stood watching from outside the front door of the shop as the vehicle moved off, Max giving them a final wave out of the open window and a toot of the horn. The wave of emotions that hit her was so powerful, she found herself sobbing right there out on the pavement.
‘Come on, Alfie,’ she sniffed, as he gave her a little whimper beside her. ‘Time to go home.'” (P. 277)
At this point, you may be wondering why this would be an issue since many novels in the genre also embrace all the standard cliches and tropes – surely that is simply the way of these warm-and-fuzzy books?
In one way yes, but what makes many of these books a delight to read too is the fact that they are very well written.
They don’t simply assemble all the bits and pieces and hope that be so doing, a lovely and miraculously uplifting tale will emerge; they actively put time into solid, believable characters, real emotional stakes, and narratives that try to raise the stakes all while acknowledging that they are playing to a very much expected, but welcomingly so, script.
Where The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop falls down, and it’s hard to write this because it is a cosily encouraging tale that makes the dark days of COVID lockdown feel that much lighter, is that doesn’t use its constituent parts with any real imagination or with strong, affectingly good writing to bolster its cliched narrative structure.
And good writing matters as much in these stories as anything else; you have to feel like the characters are worth getting to know – in that respect the novel with Emma, her shop assistant Holly and Max being the sort of people you do want to hang out with – that the emotional stakes are as real as the genre allows and that that ending makes sense given what has come before.
That The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop delivers the outcome you want and need is not in dispute; it’s how it gets there that’s disappointingly sparse, a pity given that the story it tells is one we all need in the cold, unfeeling days of COVID lockdown.