Book review: ‘High Tea’ by Sandra Harper

Margaret Moore runs a quaint tearoom in downtown Los Angeles, where she’s lived near her ex-husband and grown daughter for decades. A British expat, Margaret adjusted reasonably well to life in the Golden State — but now, after years away from London, she’s wondering what she might have missed. Compounded with her disillusionment over the hurried, superficial lives of L.A.’s residents, Margaret’s daydreams about returning home may become more than fantasies.

Baking scones and brewing tea alongside Margaret at Magpie’s Tearoom are Lilly, a pastry chef who yearns for more out of life — and her relationship with Deborah, her girlfriend much her junior; Clarissa, an aging actress still desperately clawing for that one part to send her on the path to stardom; and Lauren, a younger actress who spends more time gallivanting with her boyfriend than studying the craft of acting . . . but still manages to snag good roles. Lauren and Clarissa are servers at Magpie’s, but tensions around the building are brewing faster (and stronger) than the tea.

Sandra Harper’s High Tea looked to be a light, savory little chick lit novel — and I guess, if I were feeling vapid and ridiculous, I might have enjoyed it more. I read Harper’s Over The Holidays last December and thought it was fun, though it was badly stricken with Too Many Characters-itis. This one suffered the same illness: too many characters and far too many storylines resulted in my total ambivalence about everyone in this quick read.

Margaret is our main character and, as such, we get the most of her back story — which would have been fairly interesting if I had a clue what any of it meant to her. Her ex-husband, Tony, was a starry-eyed actor who brought his young family to Los Angeles as he pursued a stage career. Now older, wiser and, you know, gay, Tony and Margaret have divorced but continue to raise their daughter, Kate, together. As the years have gone on, Margaret and Tony have become friends — even as Tony, now 60, lives with his long-term boyfriend but watches said boyfriend parade young men through the house.

All very interesting, but how was Margaret feeling? She’s a 60-year-old divorcee whose husband — a man with whom she was once madly in love — has left her and come out of the closet. That’s enough to send anyone into a psychotic break, I’d reckon, but we never get even an inkling of emotion from our heroine. This isn’t a fresh wound in the story, of course; all of this went down years before High Tea opens. But still: there’s nothing.

Lilly’s plotline felt completely ridiculous to me, too. Here we have a woman with dreams, ambitions, goals — and the inability to stop being a doormat to her young girlfriend, a high-powered Hollywood producer who treats Lilly more like a mother than a significant other. Lilly is obsessed with their sex life — or lack thereof — and spoiler: she hops into bed with a stranger with absolutely no preamble. Struck dumb by the idea of life without Deborah, Lilly somehow has zero issue cheating on her with someone she doesn’t even know. And suddenly they’re planning a whole life together? In about .567 seconds? What?

Clarissa and Lauren passed in and out of the story so infrequently, I can’t really bother to comment on them. I never got to know either woman, other than that one was “old” and one was “young,” and apparently that’s an “issue” in Hollywood. Yeah, thanks for the breaking news that all starlets are supposed to be fresh-faced, doe-eyed and thin. Got it.

Meh. I won’t go on. I’m a huge fan of chick lit and love tea — hence why I picked this one up, coupled with the pink cover — but I sped through it in no time because I was bored. Margaret’s sojourn to England provided a brief and promising change of scenery, but it never amounted to much.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 141658062X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Over The Holidays’ by Sandra Harper

Oh, the holidays — mountains of presents to buy and food to prepare; invitations to be extended and cards to write. With the endless blur of activity and tasks to finish before finally settling down to enjoy Christmas Day, who has time to, oh, process what any of it really means?

Well, Vanessa Channing wants things to be different. After traveling every year with her husband JT and twin boys from Los Angeles to the snowy suburbs of Massachusetts, Vanessa has elected to stay home in L.A. and enjoy more of a secluded Christmas. This drastically changes plans for the Boston-based Channings, however, and JT’s brother Richard — along with his wife, Patience, and teenage daughter Libby — decide that rather than spend their holiday without their family in Massachusetts, they’ll just bring the holiday to Vanessa’s family.

That’s all well and good — except that Patience, Vanessa’s sister-in-law, is totally Type A and crazy about Christmas. Though they’re now on the West Coast and there’s nary a snowflake to be found, Patience brings her conventional ideas of a “traditional” holiday with her, and Vanessa wants little to do with it. After JT comes down with the flu, leaving Vanessa to entertain and prepare for the big day alone, the life vest she’d been wearing to get her through the season begins to deflate.

And toss in a seductive playwright who desperately wants her “assistance” with a new piece he’s writing; her artsy, unhelpful sister Thea who can’t commit to a new installation or boyfriend; Carol, her mother, and Carol’s new, meddling boyfriend? Yep, recipe for disaster.

Sandra Harper’s Over The Holidays is a tongue-in-cheek look at those traditions that both bind and break us, and the maniacal way in which we all flutter around this time of year — trying to be everyone to everybody. I loved that the book was based in Los Angeles, giving us a glimpse of a warm-weather Christmas — something I find fascinating! And Harper did a solid job discussing the Channing traditions and their meaning to each individual member.

While the novel was definitely a fast, entertaining read, I had a hard time getting past my annoyance with several of the characters. The Boston-based Channings — Richard, Patience and Libby — came across as such stereotypical, uptight New Englanders, and they felt more like caricatures of WASPs than real people. Like Vanessa, Patience’s OCD began to really grate on me. And if it was supposed to? Harper did an excellent job! I came dangerously close to wishing I could grab her by her skinny, twinset-wearing neck and give her a good slap. And Libby, their teenage daughter, was so incessantly whiny, ungrateful and selfish that I would have been tempted to ditch her in L.A. on my way back to Massachusetts.

Through our all-knowing, third-person narrator, we’re able to dart in and out of the minds of every character in Over The Holidays — a fact I found jarring. Vanessa seemed to be the story’s anchor and principle player, and I think I would have enjoyed the book better if I’d seen everything through her filter — and gotten her “side” of things more clearly. Thea fascinated me, too, and was my favorite person in the novel; I could have enjoyed the story as told by her perspective, too. Her examination of what the holidays “mean,” as explored through her art, was an interesting concept. Seeing even more of that would have been fun.

Overall, a fast and simple read which satisfied my desire to read something with a Christmas bent. A little more substance in the story would have rounded out my holiday feast, but I’m happy to have spent some time with the Channings in their pursuit of something lasting — and something real.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439158703 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program