"Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner" Helen Cox
I have been following Helen Cox (@Helenography and @MilkshakesNYC) since I spotted her front cover on my twitter feed. It just looked like a really fun book and Helen has been releasing short free extracts about the background of the main characters via her twitter feed as a kind of tantalising treat while we all await the publication of the first full instalment of the story of the staff at the Starlight Diner.
I really liked the concept of making this more than a book and think it would lend itself to a huge franchise of all sorts of exciting avenues, including a film in which Anne Hathaway, Kristen Bell Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson would all ably capture the sarcastic, intelligent, vulnerable and very likeable main character Esther.
So what is it about? The Starlight Diner, a retro eatery in NYC, where 50's music, colourful uniforms and delicious milkshakes create an inviting atmosphere for customers and it's family of staff. As owner Bernie tells us in the prologue, "one thing you can never be sure of is just who is going to walk through the doorway but they all have one thing in common - they all have a story to tell."
Meet Esther, an English girl who has left a teaching career and London behind as she tries to run away from a hidden past. Meet Jack, a gruff, initially arrogant English actor, who wants to get to know more about this enigmatic waitress who can answer crossword clues without pausing for thought.
Esther harbours a deep, unhappy secret which is preventing her from moving forward in her life. "What good is a life if you were too afraid to live it?" She immediately feels a strong connection with Jack and they are clearly attracted to each other but something is holding them both back. Only when they confront their pasts and fully open up to each other, can they find their happy ending. But, will Jack still be interested in Esther when he finds out the truth about her?
Cox's style is very engaging and entertaining. Esther is sharp, witty, sarcastic, seemingly strong and in control. I really enjoyed the opening pages and connected with her personality very quickly. It was easy to visualise the busy life of the diner and the waitress's repartee with the customers. Quickly the reader realises that Esther is not a "typical" waitress and there must be a more sinister reason why she has chosen to rebuild her life here. She is intelligent, well read and frequently makes asides which infer knowledge and a literary background.
Mona, a fellow colleague, is full of gentle wisdom. She is a good tonic for Esther's cynicism, telling her that "actors are paid to be beautiful but they also need someone with whom they can share parts of themselves that aren't so pretty." Once she's finished admonishing her for the correct use of "whom", Esther is left to consider Jack more fairly. But while she wanders the dark, wet streets she continues to berate herself. She could never be warm, safe, loved. And once the truth begins to be uncovered she fears she'll have to flee again to somewhere where the "ghosts can't follow".
The mystery deepens. The novel takes a more serious turn. Boyce, the obnoxious journalist, is full of tricks and blackmail, stopping at nothing to get a headline story, sniffing out in the way only a ruthless journalist can, that there is more to Esther than simply an English woman who wanted to work in New York for a while.
Esther's story is an emotional journey; a journey of learning to forgive yourself, learning to love yourself, learning to trust others and overcome a traumatic past which is permeating all aspects of your new life. It is sad, it is serious. It is romantic and ultimately heartwarming. All the while, set against the bright backdrop of colour, light, music, fun, food and the friends of the 1950's style Starlight Diner. Cox's tone of voice always striking a perfect balance between wit, humour, entertainment, sensitivity, respect and understanding. The plot and the characters are well handled ensuring a plausible plot and appealing characters who you end up caring about and rooting for.
My only complaint - Cox beautifully resolves the different strands of the story to a satisfying and comforting conclusion then...disaster... She dares to end the story with the arrival of a new customer and the dreaded words "To Be Continued". Seriously? I mean, I just don't think I can wait......! I am sitting at the counter, about to tuck into my strawberry milkshake and help Walt with the crossword - I can't leave now!
There are some good reading group questions at the back which draw the reader's attention to some of the themes explored by Cox such as whether other people can change our lives or whether it is just up to us? And can you ever really outrun your shadow? Food for thought (excuse the pun).
So all in all, I enjoyed this book. I read it quickly, it was an easy read and probably best described as chick lit. I will be encouraging people to pack it in their holiday suitcase and really think it will do very well once published. I think it will have a wide and popular appeal and very much hope it gets picked up as a TV series or film.
Thanks so much to NetGalley and Avon publishers for approving an advanced copy in return for a fair review.
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