A light-hearted and dreamy novel, Midnight at the Blackbird Café soothes the reader with its gentle imagery and hints of magical realism. A book which remains at surface-level, the writer entices the reader through her likable characters and small-town sweetness. The environment and famous café are full of dainty delights, however it does little to delve beyond this one-dimensional starting point. Not an unenjoyable read, but one that could leave you unsatisfied, especially when coupled with the overdone metaphors and lack of depth to the main protagonists.
While my critiques of this novel are evident, I didn’t find this an unpleasant read. There is something comforting and satisfying to the ‘everything coming together’ aspect of the book which – although obvious – Webber does do well. Our initial wants of the plotline and character desires are met, and the main protagonists – Anna Kate and Natalie – are largely likeable and easy to root for. Their flustered and self-critical approach provides the novel with the perfect base on which to build up to these more strong-minded women they become by the end of the book, sure of their decisions and their lives in Wicklow.
I did also find myself getting more and more engrossed in the story, however it was hard to determine whether this was because I knew how it was going to end, or because I was indeed sucked in by the language and the plot. The novel has all the ideal makings of a classic rom-com, complete with the quaint country town, mysterious yet kind men, headstrong women, and all the old and kooky souls that usually come with this setting. The imagery – while lacking – was cinematic when it was included, and I could easily visualise the basics of the town and its people, which took a Disney-esque feel in places. It was heavy with romance, teasing us with longing looks, brushes of hands and nervous exchanges.
One thing that Webber does excel in, is her description of food and cooking. It very quickly becomes clear that food and the joy of cooking is a key part of the novel, almost taking on the role of another character. Some of my favourite sections of the book are the scenes where Anna Kate describes creating her treats in her deceased Grandmother’s café, and it’s clear that a lot of care and consideration has gone into researching Southern cooking and delicacies. I found myself longing over the various biscuits, pies and teas that were showcased in the novel, which all the characters cherish and desire too. These additions helped to cement the Southern environment of the novel and gave another much-need dynamic to Anna Kate’s character. I only wish that this same care and consideration were taken when it came to the imagining the rest of the book, as next to the food imagery, the rest of the language fell largely flat for me.
I found much of the novel to be relying on clichés and simple metaphors, which stood out within the text and only took away from the world that Webber was trying to pull us into. This is particularly true for the characters speech; it was unnatural and difficult to imagine and did little to portray these strong Southern characters. As the novel progresses, you do get used to this way that the speech is constructed, however if you take a step away from the book and really consider the characters’ exchanges, it’s plain to see that it isn’t realistic, especially when considering that the novel tackles hard-hitting subject matters like mental health, grief, family feuds and guilt. Because the speech gave us so much – i.e. there was very little left to read between the lines – in such a short space of time, it was also very easy to guess where the novel’s plot and its characters were heading. While we did still root for the obvious outcome, it was largely anti-climactic when things finally did resolve or come together. Comforting, of course, but not exciting.
I wouldn’t be able to write this review without mentioning the genre – women’s fiction. In the cover jacket, the author information explicitly mentions that Midnight at the Blackbird Café is Webber’s first work of women’s fiction. I can’t help feeling that Webber has played up to the genre in a way, setting aside her usual writing techniques, and produced this novel specifically to fit the small box that is women’s fiction. Could it be that by writing for the women’s fiction market, the writer’s skills were therefore limited?
I can’t comment too much on this topic, as I don’t consider myself well-read in women’s fiction, however I did find it disappointing that women were not portrayed in a particularly progressive or unique manner. While they did showcase a good sense of willing and independence, it was disheartening to see that their overriding roles were that of the caregiver, the nurturer and the peacemaker. It would have been great to see them take on more of a funny, headstrong and ultimately realistic persona – the outspoken and confident female characters seemed to come attached to a negative trait e.g. they were also bitter, or disliked, or spoke too much.
While I did find the novel overall enjoyable as a consumer, I found it difficult to praise it from a critical or literary viewpoint. Ultimately, it will appeal to those who want a heart-warming, light-hearted read, which is something that admittedly, we often all crave once in a while. This is a novel that is guaranteed a happy ending, and which leaves you positively fulfilled, with regards to the plot. The magical realism aspect is subtle and done well, fitting nicely with the dream-like environment and ‘straight out of a fairy-tale book’ characters. However, those looking to be challenged, excited, and to be immersed in a diverse range of language techniques will be left disappointed.
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe is published by Tor/Forge and is available here.
Heather Webber is an American author of romance and mystery novels. She also writes paranormal mysteries under the pseudonym Heather Blake.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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