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Before I saw 'The Tea House on Mulberry Street' in the PDSA charity shop I confess I had not heard of Sharon Owens. Apart from the bargain price, I liked the book's title. It sounded so cosy and comforting, an impression that was reinforced by the blurb on the book itself. 'The Tea House on Mulberry Street' was "the number one Irish bestseller", apparently. The front cover has praise from Cecilia Ahern, while the back cover quotes the Irish Independent as saying Sharon Owens is like "Maeve Binchy meets Joanna Trollope"! While none of those authors are even in my top ten of favourites, I fancied some light reading after a phase of serious novels and historical non-fiction. So, I handed over my 50p, safe in the knowledge that whether I liked the book or not some poor wee cats and dogs would be a little better off.
'The Tea House on Mulberry Street' was the first novel by Irish author Sharon Owens and was published in 2003. The setting is Muldoon's tea rooms, Belfast. The story is based around the lives of Muldoon's owners and customers. The first few chapters introduce us to several key characters including:
Daniel and Penny Stanley. They own the tea rooms, which originally belonged to Penny's parents. Penny and Daniel's marriage is on shaky ground. Penny wants nice things, a baby, a different kind of life. Daniel doesn't.
Beatrice and Alice Crawley. A pair of elderly twin sisters who devote their lives to fundraising for charity, and spend their visits to Muldoon's criticising the ways of the modern world.
Brenda Brown. A young would-be artist, living in the flat next door to the tea rooms. She sits at her table writing love letters to actor Nicolas Cage, but never posts them.
Henry and Aurora Blackstaff. Henry runs an antiquarian bookshop near Muldoon's. His wife Aurora organises The Bronte Bunch - a group of worthy ladies who meet to read and discuss the works of the Brontes. What Aurora wants is a conservatory. A large one. But the conservatory will mean the total destruction of her husband's beloved garden.
Arnold and Sadie Smith. Arnold is a conservatory salesman. Despite her weight, and Arnold's scathing comments, his wife Sadie comfort eats in Muldoon's. She discovers her husband is having an affair.
Clare Fitzgerald. On a visit home from New York, Clare tries to find her lost love. Befire she moved to the States she used to live in Brenda Brown's flat.
There are various minor character involved in the storyline - but too many to mention here!
While this novel would probably be classified as chick-lit (horrible term!) my first thought was that it reminded me of a soap opera. I do not mean to be disparaging, but like a soap opera it does not have one central storyline but follows the fortunes of a whole cast of characters. At some points one character will have centre stage, then they will drift into the background while someone else's story takes precedence. There is not really a plot and sub-plot, but all the stories weave together.
One problem with stories told in this way is that if the characters are not well drawn then I become confused about who is who. This was to some extent one of the drawbacks of this novel for me.
I have seen this technique of interweaving several characters' stories done many times before by different authors. In this respect 'The Tea House on Mulberry Street' made me think of the Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith. Sharon Owens does not have the same witty touch as McCall Smith, although there are certainly amusing episodes in her novel. To pick up on the Irish Independent's comment comparing Sharon Owens with Maeve Binchy, I do agree that I can see something of Maeve Binchy in the way 'The Tea House on Mulberry Street' is told. However I think Maeve Binchy has a kind of warmth in her writing which seems somehow lacking in this novel. I think that is the main reason why I did not feel too bothered by whether the characters found the things they were searching for. There is a lot of detail about their lives such as what they eat and wear, where they live, what happened in their pasts. What they are missing is I think more emotional depth. I feel it would have been better to have less characters, but to explore the main ones more deeply. To me they did not quite ring true. I liked the character of Brenda, but felt Sharon Owens spoilt things by having Brenda's troubled mental state cause her to act in a very OTT way during one particular scene. Brenda became rather a grotesque character at this point, and her behaviour felt slightly embrrassing.
I also noticed that when I was reading, many of the characters seemed older than they are supposed to be. Brenda is only 24, Penny is 35, the Blackstaffs and the Smiths are all in their 40s. I am in my 40s yet I consistently felt I was reading about people a good 10 years older. There is something rather world-weary about the characters. While one of the themes of the novel is that all the main characters are seeking change, I had trouble believing that they would have put up with their present circumstances for so long. I felt like giving them a good shaking!
I am 50/50 on whether to recommend this novel. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. It didn't have a feelgood factor because the characters didn't engage me enough. On the other hand it was sufficiently entertaining to make me read on. I liked Sharon Owens' writing style, which flows well and is very descriptive, particularly about the food served in Muldoon's. At the end of the novel is a recipe for Cherry Cheesecake, one of Muldoon's specialities. This is a nice touch, but I have seen recipes included in novels before so it's not especially original.
If you like chick-lit or are already a fan of Sharon Owens you may enjoy this novel. She certainly does have lots of fans, and her reviews on Amazon are full of praise. Her reviewers on that site award this particular novel 4.5 stars out of 5. Myself I cannot really go higher than 3, although I may have stretched to 3.5 if it was possible on Ciao.
My copy of this book is published by Penguin, cover price £6.99. However as I know it is not one that I will read again I'll be giving it back to the PDSA shop next time I go, so some more furry creatures can benefit!
If you want to know more about her, Sharon Owens' website is at:-
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