Best-selling author Jenny Colgan’s novel Meet Me at the Cupcake Café has sold more than 95,000 copies since its hardcover debut in the United Kingdom in 2011, garnering praise from such media as The Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, and The Sunday Express. Naperville-based Sourcebooks recently issued the paperback edition, much to the delight of Colgan’s fans in the United States.
Meet Me at the Cupcake Café centers around Issy Randall, a single, thirty-something Londoner whose life is going nowhere fast. When she is fired from her comfortable but dead-end job, she loses not only her professional situation but her boyfriend as well: In a turn reminiscent of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Issy was dating her boss, a charming but cold narcissist.
Issy spends some predictable time feeling sorry for herself before realizing that losing her job and her cad of a boyfriend could well be a blessing in disguise. She decides to launch her own business, a café that features homemade cupcakes and baked goods, the kind of treats she learned to make from her grandfather, a retired, aging baker who passed down to Issy not only tasty recipes but common sense as well.
While traveling the path from unemployed and loveless to entrepreneur and future girlfriend, Issy is surrounded by a cast of colorful characters, from a sassy, brassy roommate to a couple of no-nonsense coworkers and from her charming grandfather to a hapless suitor. Colgan intertwines Issy’s stories with theirs, often sharing not only Issy’s internal thoughts but those of other characters as well. While most novels focus on the thoughts and feelings of only one character, Colgan takes a different tack, a twist that can be a bit confusing at times as the perspective sometimes shifts from one character’s view to another’s.
Despite the occasional glimpse into the minds of other characters, the main focus remains on Issy. We watch as she navigates life from unemployed to entrepreneur, from girlfriend to single. We share her hopes and frustrations as she figures out all the paperwork, financing, rules, and regulations that go into launching her own business. We celebrate with her as the café takes off.
Issy’s world is engaging, funny, and touching. Colgan’s style is breezy and witty. Although U.S. readers may be unfamiliar with some of Colgan’s Britishisms (e.g., “wheelie bin,” “yummy mummie,” “spanner,” “guts for garters,” etc.), readers on this side of the pond can certainly identify with the hopes, dreams, and anxieties that Issy faces.
In fact, it is there where Meet Me at the Cupcake Café shines, going beyond a romance novel or a simple work of women’s fiction. It would be easy to dismiss this book as a light, fluffy beach read. And, without a doubt, Colgan’s novel is indeed that. Although long, it is a quick, easy read. But it’s more than that. Yes, the book is full of predictable romance. Yes, everything turns out for the best. Yes, it even features some recipes (which may remind some readers of the 1990s best-selling novel Just Desserts). But Meet Me at the Cupcake Café goes beyond trite superficiality to examine—albeit lightly—something more existential: how one measures one’s life, both professionally and personally.
Despite losing her job and losing her boyfriend, Issy discovers that she is rich in friends and family, hope and dreams, skills and know-how. When put to the challenge, Issy realizes that she has more grit than she ever knew. It is to Colgan’s credit that watching as Issy comes to know herself is so much fun.
Although capitalizing on the cupcake trend—which surely will grow stale sooner rather than later as the next food fad consumes the nation (cronuts, anyone?)—may be a little gimmicky, it’s certainly timely. Fads and trends fade, but the issues Issy faces are timeless. Colgan’s writing is funny and sharp, and the world she has created for Issy and her entourage rings true. Meet Me at the Cupcake Café is an engaging read that actually tackles some meaningful issues, and Colgan has struck a nice balance of silly and serious in this perky novel.
July 2013, Sourcebooks
$14.99, 410 pages, paperback
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen