REVIEW: THE HIDDEN COTTAGE BY ERICA JAMES

HIDDEN COTTAGE, THE 
Erica James
Orion RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan


The Hidden CottageTHE enticing cover and title drew me towards this book, as well as the premise of “family ties, secrets, love and guilt” woven with “warmth, honesty and wit”. For the most part that’s exactly what it is; it just left me with some mixed feelings. Maybe I’m just being sensitive …

Some people appear to have it all. Mia Channing is one of those people. To onlookers, her life is enviable. She lives in a beautiful home in the village of Little Pelham, she has a happy, stable marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown up children to whom she’s devoted. The truth is far from that – for Mia, life is more of a balancing act than she lets on. Life with her husband, Jeff, is barely tolerable, although he doesn’t admit or see that. Mia is so used to playing the role of peacemaker to her selfish husband, that he has no inkling that she is even unhappy.

Her children also have trouble relating to their father. Jensen has always had an uneasy relationship with Jeff, while Eliza’s relationship with her father is at best, distant. Everyone knows Daisy, the youngest, is his favourite – Jeff admits it and sees no wrong in that. So when Daisy, tired of her father’s controlling ways, announces she’s moving to Australia, all hell breaks loose.

Enter Owen Fletcher. He has returned to Little Pelham with mixed memories; as a child he lived there with his abusive father and the only happiness he had was at the Hidden Cottage, playing piano with two reclusive sisters. He is immediately drawn to Mia and she to him, but Mia knows the attraction can come to nothing? Or can it? Is it time for her to do something for herself and make some decisions about her future?

Secrets – all of the characters have them. Jensen , Eliza and Daisy keep quiet about their relationships; Owen keeps his abusive father to himself; Mia keeps silent about Jeff and her marriage; and Jeff has his own secrets he’d rather Mia not know about. In the case of Mia and Jeff’s family, it just highlights how sad the family really is. Something needs to change.

Which brings me to the mixed feelings. I won’t be spoiling too much by writing that Mia and Owen have an affair. What bothered me about it, aside from the fact that it’s wrong in my view, is the way I felt Jeff was set up to fail right from the start. I felt manipulated into not liking him; he was just too unlikeable. Of course, by making him so unsympathetic, the reader then feels almost as if Mia and Owen are justified in their actions. I didn’t agree with that. Mia says at one point that she wants to do things in the “right order” (ie break up with Jeff), but by then she’s already slept with Owen so it seemed a little false. There’s another interesting contrast when Mia counsels Eliza who discovers her boyfriend is married; it’s a hyprocritical situation and Mia knows it. But she keeps it to herself.

Don’t get me wrong. I accept that the characters are flawed and that this was part of the character development. I liked Mia as a character and wanted her to be appreciated by someone – yes, by Owen. And I’m not on Jeff’s ‘side’ – he had a lot to answer for. I just wanted to make my mind up myself about him, if that makes sense.

That niggling thing aside, I found the book to be a well-written, light and pleasant read with nicely developed characters and a good sense of place, with themes including family violence, motherhood, family ties, loss and love.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Bookish treat: Mixed nuts … reflecting mixed feelings about this book.