The good: Sweet, fun and entertaining…
The not-so-good: The descriptions of Hester and Ben’s cooking tempt me far too much.
Pages: 395 (ARC)
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
My rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hester and Harriet is a cosy read, but don’t be fooled that it’s all cookies and holidays! While there are some delicious descriptions of food and the plot takes place mainly from Christmas to New Year, many serious issues are tackled from asylum seekers to illegal activities. However, Hilary Spiers does this in a way that is neither preachy nor boring. The story is never too heavy and there are a lot of witty moments. Perhaps it’s because the story takes place over Christmas, but I think this would be a great book if you have a few lazy hours on Christmas afternoon. (Otherwise, a lazy weekend or holiday will do just fine).
Hester and Harriet are two widowed sisters, now living together quite happily in a small English village. (Well, Harriet could do without Hester’s attempts to curb her weight, but when she does make such delicious treats it’s hard to abstain…) The sisters are perfectly happy with their quiet life, but their cousins are determined to make their lives jollier, hence the annual pilgrimage for a truly inedible Christmas dinner. This year, the sisters find a young girl with a baby in the disused bus shelter near their house. Being kindly souls (plus the jubilance at not having to attend Christmas dinner), they take Daria and Milo home with them. Then Ben, their cousins’ nephew, appears after an argument with his parents. Suddenly, Hester and Harriet’s peace is shattered. Not only is the house crowded, but there are mysterious strangers looking for Daria, as well as an acquaintance snooping in their lives. Suddenly the sisters have to practice subterfuge with hilarious results…
Even though the topic matter isn’t always jolly, Spiers has a wonderful turn with the characters’ language and banter. Hester and Harriet are perfect examples, sniping like sisters (even though they are both past retiring age), yet finishing off each other’s sentences and managing to invent a white lie out of this air. In contrast, 15 year old Ben speaks modern but dreadful English, full of wrong tenses but somehow still lovable anyway. Occasionally Hester or Harriet will throw a word in conversation that didn’t quite fit with modern English, which was quaint but sometimes appeared to be just for show.
The characters are all so different, but work so well together. Ben and Daria get along fantastically (Ben is an incredible help with Milo, which is one of the reasons the sisters rethink his worth). Ben is revealed gradually to be more than just a surly teenager – I think he could be in a book of his own! Daria is just lovely and as her backstory is revealed, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minor characters are also quirky – Finbar, the man who lives in the bus shelter has some interesting tastes and Hester and Harriet’s bridge friends range from the town gossip to the lady who is fiercely competitive.
I’d recommend this book as a good Christmas present to the person in your life who likes small town stories with witty moments – thinking Keeping Up With Appearances or The Vicar of Dibley. It’s a lovely read that isn’t too taxing, yet is still rewarding.