Jenny Colgan has become one of my favourite authors over the past couple of years. Her books are very uplifting and help with some much needed escapism. I especially enjoy her more recent books which not only feature a protagonist who is in her early 30s like me, but also one who has to make some major changes in their life. These changes lead to a new direction for the heroine which is ultimately very fulfilling for them. Add in the sprinkling of romance, and you have the perfect feel-good novel.
I was very fortunate to receive an advance copy of Jenny's latest book, Little Beach Street Bakery from her publishers Little Brown a couple of weeks ago. I had been very much looking forward to reading it, so I was keen to get started. I began reading it that evening and immediately I was hooked.
Polly the main character is a very likeable heroine. Things haven't been going right for her for a while, and we meet her at a very low ebb. Getting to witness the decisions she makes, and the adventure this leads to is a real pleasure. You find yourself rooting for her, and with every triumph and tragedy you will feel her joy and sadness along with her. As the title suggests, baking is a big theme of the book, but a previous interest in it is by no means needed. You might find yourself wanting to give baking a try for yourself by the end though, and as with her other recent books, Jenny has included some tried and tested recipes that you can have a go at. If any more persuasion is necessary that you should read this book, there is even the appearance of the cutest of sea birds - the puffin! The setting is exquisite, and made me long for the sea. I won't go any further into the story than that, as I don't want to give away any spoilers - you'll just have to read it for yourself!
Jenny Colgan has a way of writing what makes the reader feel as if they are chatting with an old friend. I love this style, as it is so easy to lose yourself in her books, and this is one no exception. In fact, for me this was one of Jenny's finest novels to date. I only had one sticking point - the use of a 'gluten-allergy' as a character trait.
You might wonder why I have a problem with it, as don't we all get fed up of faddy-eaters who claim to have allergies and intolerances and cause us no end of trouble when we try to cater for them? Well, just under 3 years ago, my son was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease after having been sick and in pain for a long time. A few months later my daughter was diagnosed with it too. They were 9 and 12 at the time. You can read more about our experiences here http://diaryofacoeliacsmother.blogspot.co.uk/.
You can be allergic to wheat, but what is usually misunderstood as an allergy to gluten is actually Coeliac Disease. Coeliac UK, the oldest and largest Coeliac Disease charity in the world describes Coeliac Disease as "a well-defined, serious illness where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease." So, not a fad-diet copied from the latest celebrity in-crowd for these people for whom the only treatment is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of their life. Failure to do this in the short term can cause bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, wind, tiredness and headaches. Undiagnosed Coeliac Disease or failure to stick to the gluten-free diet can lead to malnutrition, anaemia, infertility, osteoporosis and even in rare cases certain types of cancer https://www.coeliac.org.uk/coeliac-disease/associated-conditions-and-complications/ Although you have to be born with one of the genes responsible, you are not born with Coeliac Disease, something has to trigger it, and this can happen at any point during your life - sometimes as a young child, but many are not diagnosed until much later in life.
The difficulty is, when people decide to adopt a gluten-free diet because it is the 'in thing' or to try and lose weight, they can pick and chose when to stick to it. Take certain celebrities for example - one day they will be extolling the virtue of their new gluten-free diet, the next they'll be tweeting a photo of themselves eating that doughnut they "just couldn't resist". Understandably this confuses people who don't understand the facts about Coeliac Disease, but for those who have to live with it, the condition has a huge impact on their lives. Having to read the label of every food you ever eat, running the risk of getting ill when you eat out, having to give up foods you love - it is incredibly stressful. The risk of cross-contamination is another issue which many people would not consider - even a crumb of gluten-containing food can trigger a reaction in a person with Coeliac Disease. This is what makes eating food which you haven't prepared yourself, in your own kitchen, or which you is labelled as 'Gluten-free' (this is protected by labelling law) a frightening experience. The one good thing with the growth of the Free-From market in the past few years is that choice and availability has improved. Almost all supermarkets will now have a Free-From section where basics such as gluten-free flour and bread can be found. In the recent past, some pizza shops have even started doing gluten-free bases, so at long last people who cannot eat gluten can enjoy what so many take for granted!
So the next time you hear about someone with special dietary requirements, before you brush them off as 'difficult', 'a fussy-eater' or that it's 'just a lifestyle choice', think about what the reality must be like for someone with Coeliac Disease or a serious food allergy and be glad if you're lucky enough not to have to live with that yourself.
A brief explanation of Coeliac Disease can be found here https://www.coeliac.org.uk/coeliac-disease/about-coeliac-disease-and-dermatitis-herpetiformis/. Common Coeliac Disease FAQs can be read here https://www.coeliac.org.uk/coeliac-disease/coeliac-disease-faqs/ and common myths can be found here https://www.coeliac.org.uk/coeliac-disease/myths-about-coeliac-disease/.
I apologise for this book review ending up being a bit of a soapbox speech, but in the UK 1 in 100 people have Coeliac Disease but only 10-15% of those are actually diagnosed. If you think you might, it is important not to cut gluten out of your diet straight away. See https://www.coeliac.org.uk/coeliac-disease/getting-diagnosed/ for more information.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed Little Beach Street Bakery, and if you have enjoyed any of Jenny Colgan's previous books or like stories which are ultimately uplifting and where you identify and empathise with the main character, I have no doubt you will to.