My Very Best Friend
By Cathy Lamb
Born in St. Ambrose, Fife, Scotland, Charlotte spent the first fifteen years of her life in that village. The cherished only child of a red-haired, bagpipe-playing Scottish farmer and his American feminist wife, Charlotte enjoyed an idyllic childhood filled with her father’s stories and the imaginative worlds created by Charlotte, her life-long best friend Bridget Ramsay, Bridget’s brother Toran, and their friend Pherson Hameldon. The idyll ended abruptly with her father’s death. Charlotte and her mother left Scotland for America, and in the twenty years since, neither has returned. When their long-term tenant dies, Charlotte’s mother asks Charlotte to visit St. Ambrose to oversee the necessary repairs to the family cottage and sell it. The trip will also give Charlotte an opportunity to check on Bridget from whom Charlotte has not heard in several months.
Charlotte finds that the cottage where generations of Mackintoshes had lived has been turned into a pigsty. Just cleaning it out will be a horrendous task—and then there are more substantial repairs that must be made. Clearly Charlotte’s stay in St. Ambrose will be longer than she planned. That’s not a hardship, however, since old friends and new ones and Scotland itself give her the sense that she belongs in this place with these people. Best of all, Toran is just as wonderful as Charlotte remembers, and the thirty-five-year-old Charlotte is soon as much in love with him as the fifteen-year-old Charlotte was.
But all is not perfect. Bridget has disappeared, and despite all Toran’s efforts, including hiring a private investigator, no one has been able to find her. Charlotte also learns from Toran and through a series of diary-like letters that Bridget has written to Charlotte over the two decades they have lived on different continents that the life Charlotte thought Bridget was living has been all fabrication. Instead, Bridget’s life has been filled with horrors and pain, physical and emotional. Charlotte loves Bridget, but she wonders since she knew so little of Bridget’s real life if they truly were best friends. Life will bring devastating sorrow and soaring happiness before Charlotte finds the answer to her question.
Cathy Lamb’s first-person narrative mixes past and present, tears and laughter in a poignant tale about love on many levels. This is a story about love of place, love of family, love between friends, romantic love, and even the love that is self-acceptance--and each story thread touches the reader’s heart. Lamb takes her reader from moments of outright hilarity to moments of great tenderness to moments that may require a full box of tissues to read through.
This is not a perfect book. It is long (480 pages). I think it could have been pruned a bit without losing anything. Also, some of the transitions from present to past are disconcertingly abrupt. But there are so many things I loved about the book that its imperfections seemed negligible. In addition to Charlotte and her friendship with Bridget, the top five things I loved include:
1. The things that made me laugh, really laugh--loudly. I’m not a cat person, but I found irresistibly amusing the image of Charlotte’s walks with her four cats in their assigned places in their pink stroller. Her flight to Scotland, the inebriated conclusions to the meetings of the St. Ambrose Ladies’ Gab, Garden, and Gobble group, and her conversations with her agent also left me giggling madly.
2. The little things. The games of the TorBridgePherLotte fearsome foursome in memory and in reenactment touched me, and I thought the secondary romance between Chief Constable Ben Harris and Gitanjali Chavan was funny and sweet. I also found Ben Harris’s unwavering affection for Charlotte’s father endearing.
3. Charlotte’s makeover. It is one of the best ever because Charlotte needed it for herself but not for Toran, who saw her as beautiful even when she was at her most frumpish.
4. The solution to the disappearance of Father Angus Cruickshank. I smugly thought I had it figured out, but I was off by a generation.
5. Toran, a wonderful, heart-stealing character. I’m now convinced that the reason I’m single is that I never took a trip to Scotland.
Reading this list makes the book sound lovely and light, and it is. But it is also weighty and sometimes unbearably sad. Charlotte’s journey is both literal and metaphorical. She finds not only the love of her life in St. Ambrose but also her heritage and a self quite different from the person she was on her island. Bridget’s return to St. Ambrose raises the whole issue of what home is and how the prodigal is received as well as the issue of making judgments based on lies and illusions. The time-travel theme introduced with Charlotte’s romance novels (and I think their inevitable teasing reminder of another time-traveling heroine and her Scottish soul-mate) acquires quite another meaning as Charlotte and Bridget engage in their own time travels, individually and together.
As much as this is the story of all that Charlotte gains through her return to her native land, it is also a book about loss and how humans deal with grief. Charlotte experienced great loss at a young age, but the fact that she cannot visit her father’s grave reveals that she still has much to learn. By the end of her journey, she has learned this truth: “They never leave our hearts, the ones we love. . . . Their love lives on, breathes on, carries on, and eventually gives us peace, the memories holding us in a hug.”
If you like books that make you laugh and cry and fill your heart with characters you cannot forget, grab a copy of this book. As for me, I’m checking out Cathy Lamb’s backlist.