Oh, Crumbs by Kathryn Freeman
Sometimes life just takes the biscuit …
Abby Spencer knows she can come across as an airhead – she talks too much and is a bit of a klutz – but there’s more to her than that. Though she sacrificed her career to help raise her sisters, a job interview at biscuit company Crumbs could finally be her chance to shine. That’s until she hurries in late wearing a shirt covered in rusk crumbs, courtesy of her baby nephew, and trips over her handbag.
Managing director Douglas Faulkner isn’t sure what to make of Abby Spencer with her Bambi eyes, tousled hair and ability to say more in the half-hour interview than he manages in a day. All he knows is she’s a breath of fresh air and could bring a new lease of life to the stale corporate world of Crumbs. To his life too, if he’d let her.
But Doug’s harbouring a secret. He’s not the man she thinks he is.
I expected this to be a usual, run-of-the-mill romance, but Kathryn Freeman has given us a considered and insightful study of human nature, relationships, and moral integrity. I could write a dissertation on this book, its characters, themes and motifs, and indeed have had several attempts at writing a review that doesn’t run on for pages. Equally, it is not often that a book has me running through the entire A to Z of emotions, but Oh Crumbs did. I was angry, laughing, anxious, happy, sad, joyful, and wished to throw a well-aimed punch or two.
It’s also been a while since an author has rendered me conflicted in my opinion of some of the people in their book. Freeman’s depiction of her characters is an exercise in creating real and believable individuals, complete with the strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and failings that you expect in real life. They are very definitely not cardboard cut-outs. If the best place for the family is framed on the shelf, then in very many ways that is true of the families in this book.
Be assured, while some of this review makes the novel sound dark and miserable, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m saying now, before going any further, this is another book that will make it onto my Books of the Year list. I relished it. Get yourself a copy, grab drinks and snacks, then settle down for a great read with wonderful and horrible characters!
On the surface, Abby and Doug come from different worlds, one privileged, titled, and rich, the other ordinary, struggling, and disadvantaged. Yet we have two people suffering from the same trials and tribulations. Freeman’s skill in bringing us this story, is that she writes the sadder, darker elements with a light-hand. You feel sorrow but not misery, sadness but not depression, balanced with hilarious banter, cheeky teenagers, and moments of great comedy.
Abby is the obvious mainstay of her family; a family that doesn’t appear to appreciate all that she has sacrificed for them. The Prologue covers two periods, first 12 years before our tale starts, and then 6 years before. The Spencer’s wife and mother has been ill for a while and dies; Abby is expected to step up and care for her younger sisters. She is just 13 years old and, at their mother’s funeral, she is the one in charge of Mandy 9, Sally 5, Holly 3, and baby Ellie just 1. As each of the three youngest have a problem that day, it is Abby who sorts them out, and it was the first time I questioned what their father was doing. At the wake, when she refuses to help, Mandy gives us an insight into what life has been like for Abby in recent months, ‘No way. You’re the oldest. That’s your job.’ Later their father apologises to Abby for not being much help over the previous months, and I wanted to give the man a damned good slap.
At the 6-year part of the Prologue, Abby is 18 and just finished school, but while her friends are all going off to university she is not. She must look after the family. Again, it is Mandy who challenges Abby about responsibility, ‘You’re always banging on at me to help you. Why don’t you tell him to come home earlier instead? He’s the parent.’ Abby points out his ineptitude, but my mind screamed that he needed to learn how to use the washing machine, cook, and so forth. Abby misses her mother very much, and we must ask the question – when did she get the time to grieve? Now, instead of breaking out into the world, she is going to find a job so she can stay at home and look after her sisters and supplement the family income. It’s heart-breaking.
Doug employs Abby and gradually realises what a clever and misplaced young woman she is. While she’s an excellent and efficient PA, he recognises that she is woman with a head for business. He is drawn to her but is emotionally closed and withdrawn. Lord Faulkner, his father, is a cruel and vindictive bully who humiliates Doug at every opportunity, and it is clear that something is festering under the surface of their toxic relationship.
Both sets of parents represent the light and dark side of the other. One mother is dead but still a presence in her daughter’s life, the other mother is alive, but has chosen to withdraw emotionally from her son. One father is a tyrant, selfish and unloving, the other is inept and while allowing Abby to make sacrifices, he loves his children and works hard to help provide for them. The actions of both fathers, combined with the absence of the mother figures, have serious consequences for Doug and Abby, though the unquestionable detrimental effect emotionally is on Doug. His sacrifice is treated with cold contempt by his mother.
Both Abby and Doug have hidden talents that neither is able to pursue as they have sacrificed their independence for the sake of their families. Abby has a great business mind but is working as a secretary and PA. Doug is an artist but was forbidden to pursue his talent as a child and young man. In sharp contrast are Mandy and Thea, sisters to Abby and Doug. They have seized a form of independence albeit in different ways and encourage their sibling to make their own lives. Thea has left home, escaped to university, so isn’t around much, leaving the youngest sister, Margaret, at home under the strict thumb of their parents. Mandy may be living at home, but she doesn’t take on any of the parental responsibilities Abby has, not because she can’t but because she doesn’t accept that it is her duty. When the time comes, we find she faces the consequences of her actions and shoulders her own responsibility without hesitation.
Abby is a delightful. A warm-hearted and loving young woman yet simmering quietly beneath the surface is an unhappiness. She is bright and intelligent, has taken an Open University degree in between balancing job, sisters, and domestic life. The only relationships she has managed to have were with her two bosses, and at best were mediocre. Whilst her father clearly loves his children, it is Abby who is the strong centre. Rituals build a family and hold it together, and throughout the book Abby is the one who has built the rituals that stop them from falling apart. She is open, direct, and honest. It is this strength of character and lively personality that Doug is drawn to.
At first Doug appears to be aloof and cold. He is a man very much in control of his behaviour, his emotions, and his thinking. He’s hasn’t so much built a wall around himself, as he has taken all romantic ideas and notions of a loving relationship and buried them so unfathomably deep. Yet bit by bit we find that he has a warm and passionate nature. No matter how hard he fights, Abby confronts and provokes him in small and surprising ways. Her guileless and unsophisticated nature has Doug questioning everything he thinks he believes in. His friend Luke is the only person with whom he behaves anything like his true self, and even then, he is guarded. Abby doesn’t understand why Doug lets his father treat him so badly, and challenges Doug on why he doesn’t defend himself.
Freeman has written a book that is funny and romantic, bright and cheerful. She cleverly and subtly weaves the pain and heartache into the narrative of the burgeoning romance in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the relationship building between Doug and Abby. Here are two people who have sacrificed their lives and independence for their families and who in finding each other may stand a chance of a life for themselves. Will they break free? Can they? Will they get the life they deserve? Or will the pull of family be too strong to overcome?
Will we find out?
The full 5 stars, and then some.
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A former pharmacist, I’m now a medical writer who also writes romance. Some days a racing heart is a medical condition, others it’s the reaction to a hunky hero.
With two teenage boys and a husband who asks every Valentine’s Day whether he has to buy a card (yes, he does), any romance is all in my head. Then again, his unstinting support of my career change proves love isn’t always about hearts and flowers – and heroes come in many disguises.
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