Friday, May 1, 2020

Review: Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

Some books just make you smile when you read them. They have a charm and a heart to them that makes reading them a pleasure. Heather Webber's Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe is one of these books. It makes you feel good and feel good about others too.

Anna Kate Callow has never been to small town Wicklow, Alabama before even though her mother grew up there and her grandmother lived there Anna Kate's whole life. She's in town for her beloved Granny Zee's funeral and to close up and sell the cafe she ran. But it turns out that she can't leave town that fast and get back to her plans to attend medical school. The terms of Granny Zee's will dictate that she has to stay in Wicklow for sixty days. And so despite her late mother's warning about going there, that is where she'll be for the next two months, whether she really wants to or not. As Anna Kate settles into the town, she reopens the cafe, weathers the curiosity about this granddaughter who the townsfolk have never met, tries to recreate the famous magical blackbird pies her grandmother made, and gets invested in the lives of several of the people around her. She, and several of the other characters, are all a little bit damaged and looking toward their futures uncertainly in this novel of second chances and starting over.

This novel combines some of my very favorite things: small towns, cooking, complicated family relationships, learning personal history, and endearing characters. While this list might make the book sound twee, it was anything but. (And frankly, even if it had been, so what?!) Anna Kate's mother fled Wicklow pregnant and under a cloud of suspicion after the car accident that killed Anna Kate's young father. The tragedy shaped many lives and Anna Kate's appearance has stirred up never resolved feelings. While all of this swirls through the plot thread dealing with her personal life, there's a light and enchanting bit of magical realism threading through the story as well. Granny Zee's blackbird pies allow people to dream of their lost loved ones but Anna Kate doesn't know the complete recipe for them, something she wants and needs to discover for herself and for the townspeople who wrap themselves around her heart. But how much time should people spend in the past, in their memories, especially when the past can contain happiness and pain, and potentially keep someone from living in the present? Anna Kate is not the only one who needs to consider this question.

Webber has written a completely charming and whimsical novel filled with secrets and gentle magic. The characters are sympathetic and well drawn. The mystery of the strange behaviour of the blackbirds behind the cafe is lightly done through the clever use of an outside newspaper reporter's questions to townspeople. Most of the novel is told in the first person with narration switching between Anna Kate and Natalie, a young widow with a child whose connection to Anna Kate is revealed as their friendship grows. There is guilt and forgiveness, the definition of family, healing and moving forward, community and love and a little romance all packed into this lovely look at how the human heart is filled.

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