Under the midnight sun of Arctic Norway, Cecilie Wiig goes online and stumbles across Hector Herrera in a band fan forum. They start chatting and soon realise they might be more than kindred spirits. But there are two big problems: Hector lives 8,909km away in Mexico. And he’s about to get married.
Can Cecilie, who’s anchored to two jobs she loves in the library and a cafe full of colourful characters in the town in which she grew up, overcome the hurdles of having fallen for someone she’s never met? Will Hector escape his turbulent past and the temptations of his hectic hedonistic life and make a leap of faith to change the path he’s on?
Zoe Folbigg’s latest novel is a story of two people, living two very different lives, and whether they can cross a gulf, ocean, sea and fjord to give their love a chance.
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Cecilie looks up. Ordinarily, she would be pleased to see young tourists walk in; a chance to improve her English, to learn some more modern words and slang. But today she isn’t. She doesn’t see the point. Cecilie no longer feels the desire to learn new ways of saying that something is wicked, ace or sick; or to practise her they’re, there and theirs any more.
Cecilie nods, as she writes down an order she and fellow staff Henrik and Stine know by heart anyway, although today just Cecilie and Henrik work a sleepy afternoon shift.
‘Take a seat, I’ll be right over,’ Cecilie says to the couple at the counter as she tucks her pen behind her ear and it disappears into a cascade of heavy hair. Somehow, Cecilie can tell that these tourists are Canadian, even before she sees the maple leaf sewn onto the North Face daypack on the young man’s back. She wonders what brought them here; where in the world they have been already. Might they have seen his hometown too?
The Hjornekafé manager, Henrik, has already started making the drinks. He exchanges a look with Cecilie, as they usually do when Gjertrud and Ole have their little tussles, only today Cecilie isn’t rolling her eyes and smiling warmly. Today, Cecilie’s face is tense and terse, her eyes dulled, as she makes her way to the cake display cabinet at the end of the counter. The dark and rickety wooden furniture is brightened by the mirrors on the walls in the modest cafe space, and what little is left of the spring daylight streams in through the floor-to-ceiling window façade to the street.
The Canadians marvel at the wrought-iron latticework trimming the ceiling and scrape their chairs back to sit down. The noise of wood dragging on wood tears through Cecilie’s brain but is drowned out by another rotation of So, ro, lilleman.
Cecilie looks at her watch. It is 3.18 p.m. She silently counts backwards as she raises the thumb and four fingers on her left hand and the thumb and index finger on her right hand. Seven. Always counting back seven. She feels a blow to her abdomen and recedes to take it as she bends down to pick up a tray from under the counter. Cecilie’s not sure if she feels hungry, winded or heartsick, but she stands up with the tray, standing to stay strong. She takes out the spiced Arctic cloudberry cake, made by Mette at her home this morning. Bright orange berries burst with pride atop vanilla cream, layered three times on sponge swathed in playful cloudberry-coloured jam. Flecks of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves pepper the pristine pale crumb. Arctic berries shimmer golden and warm surrounded by spices. The orange hues remind Cecilie of photographs she’s seen in books in the library and on the internet, of a place a world away, where buildings are painted ochre and terracotta; where doorways bask in a shade of sunshine, she has never seen for herself. Cecilie carves out a square of cake with a knife and places it on a vintage floral plate that doesn’t go with the black and white cups Henrik is preparing the drinks in. Nothing matches in this hotchpotch corner of the world, but that doesn’t matter. Customers slink in reliably for a quiet slice of cake between hiking to the world’s northernmost cathedral, or summiting the mountain ledge in the Fjellheisen cable car by day, and chasing the Northern Lights at night.
With heavy feet and a heavy heart, Cecilie plods into the cavernous kitchen out the back to the freezer. She takes out a tub of blackcurrant ice cream and thoughtfully curls a cornelle to accompany the cake. The ice cream at the Hjornekafé is made by Mette’s daughter and Cecilie’s best friend, Grethe, who owns the ice cream parlour on the high street. Ice cream sells surprisingly well in these parts, and Grethe churns the best.
Henrik, a bookish man with round glasses and floppy brown hair parted in the centre, places the pot of tea, cup of coffee and two glasses of icy tap water next to the cake plate on the tray. Cecilie collects two forks and clinks them down next to the plate, knowing she will be coming back for another slice in a few minutes anyway. She walks around to the front of the counter, gives the Canadian tourists two menus with the small illustration of the Hjornekafé on the front from her shaky hands, and picks up the tray from the counter to take it to Gjertrud and Ole at their end of the cafe.
As she walks the short distance to the back wall, Cecilie’s mouth dries, her hands shake, and the tray feels like the weight of an iceberg as it releases from her pale grip. She looks down and sees it fall in slow motion beneath her to the floor, smashing onto the ground in hot and cold shards. The vintage cake plate smashes, sending flowers flying, splatted and smeared with varying shades and textures of orange and purple and cream, all over Cecilie’s boots. Hot tea and coffee scold Cecilie’s legs in her pale blue jeans as she lets out a little gasp of pain and embarrassment. The Thing That’s Happening Today, that Cecilie is dreading, is actually happening and there’s nothing she can do about it. At that precise moment, eight thousand nine hundred and nine kilometres away, eyes widen, and pupils shrink.
Hector Herrera has woken with a start, to a crash, on the morning of his wedding day.
The writing style and setting for this story show originality, and even though the trope is popular, the story’s quirky content sets it apart.
It took me a while to get into the story and warm to the characters, I have to confess I like Kate better than the two main protagonists, probably because her personality and circumstances are more familiar to me and more comfortable to empathise.
The plot is dynamic, chronologically and geographically and this demands concentration on the reader’s part. It’s not something you can dip into, you need to keep reading, or you’ll forget salient plot points. Kate’s role in the story is not immediately apparent, although she is pivotal to the ending.
This book is my first by this author, not having read her first bestseller and in many ways, this is probably useful to make an objective assessment of the story.
Overall I like the story; it’s one for the Chick-lit fans.
I received a copy of this book from Aria via NetGalley in return for an honest review.