59 Memory Lane by Celia Anderson has a cozy tone reminding me immediately of MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, but without the crime. Anderson has created the sort of feelgood destination you long to live in, to get away from it all. Pengelly is an isolated seaside village in Cornwall with an infrequent bus service.
When a local do-gooder starts an Adopt-a-Granny scheme pairing people together, 110-year old May Rosevere is paired with her eighty year old neighbour Julia. Except unbeknown to everyone else, these two women harbour a long held grudge against each other.
The central premise of the novel is that May’s long life – and she is free of the medical complaints experienced by other older characters in the book – is thanks to her magical ability to collect other people’s memories and extract energy from them; this is described as a kind of frission, naughtiness, a buzz. May, determined to reach her 111th birthday, steps up her ‘thought harvesting’ and so is delighted to learn that Julia has discovered a large collection of family letters going back decades.
This book has two major storylines spliced together – the feelgood seaside life in Pengelly and the adventures of the community, the romances, the illnesses, the community spirit; and the flip side, the unexplored darkness of May’s theft of other people’s memories. I found the latter quite difficult. It feels as if May is basically stealing other people’s lives; when she takes Julia’s letters, Julia becomes forgetful, vague and weak. May’s ‘thought harvesting’ is not clearly defined, described variously as a power, skill, ability, talent. May’s father tells her, as a child, about her ‘power’ but we see her doing nothing positive with it. It is not a force for good, she simply uses it for a feeling of well-being. In the beginning she gets her buzz from handling secondhand possessions at fairs and sales and by picking up rubbish and forgotten objects. But when did the stealing start?
The community at Pengelly is large and so the first half of the novel includes lots of scene setting and explanation of who is who. For this reason, this feels like the first novel in a series. The story really took off for me in the second half when May’s ‘talent’ comes back to bite her and she starts to feel guilty at taking people’s memories from them when it clearly causes damage. Anderson does an excellent job in creating the world of Pengelly, the community spirit for a village often cut-off, its residents have become supportive and innovative. There is romance for young and old, and support and friendship for everyone when illness strikes.
At the end I would have liked more explanations; to the mystery of Julia’s letters, the death of May’s husband, the mysterious Will who went off to be a priest, or the meaning of the missing ring. I can’t help but think this is a missed opportunity to turn this novel into something more than a Cornish village romance. Pengelly is definitely an escapist village with its beach walks, barbecues, cake, biscuits and mugs of hot chocolate, and it was good to see a cast of characters across the age spectrum, from six-year old Tamsin to 110 year-old May and lots of 50-80+, all getting along together. But I was left feeling I had been led, by the cover design, to expect one novel but got another.
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