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The Oyster Catcher by Jo Thomas

Life has gone utterly awry for Fiona Clutterbuck, the hapless heroine of Jo Thomas’ light romance The Oyster Catcher. When we first meet her, less than 48 hours after she became a newlywed, her marriage has imploded and she has been cautioned for stealing the campervan she used to flee the festivities.

The stage is set for a meet-cute and a drastic change of life, and Thomas duly delivers on a tried-and-true formula for love and redemption. The action moves along swiftly, with Fiona fetching up at a pub in the tiny coastal town of Dooleybridge, County Galway, population less than 500. Introducing herself stammeringly as “Fi English” to the local oyster farmer, Sean Thornton, she lands a gig as a gofer and the immediate problems of food and shelter – and who knows, maybe lifelong companionship – are solved.

Sean lives alone with a Great Dane, some geese and hens, and donkeys named Freddie and Mercury. The eclectic menagerie would be peaceful if not for the ever-present threat of theft of the oyster crop by birds (oystercatchers) and pirates of the human variety. Poachers can swoop in by boat and uplift much of the product in minutes, and Fiona’s tasks include keeping an eye peeled for illicit activity.

The real complication in Sean’s life, however, is his partner Nancy, an urbanite who serves as his oyster broker and visits far-flung Dooleybridge with great reluctance and a primary mission to keep her nails in Sean as a significant other (of sorts) and revenue stream. You don’t have to be well-versed in romance novels to know it’s an ill fit, and Nancy twigs to the threat posed to her tidy arrangement by the competent, endearing Fiona.

Fiona’s being “shacked up with Sean Thornton” quickly becomes the talk of the tight-knit town, and the lack of compelling, colourful supporting characters that mine the comedic potential of their domestic set-up seems an opportunity missed. Other than a would-be paramour who mounts a weak campaign to woo Fiona and a dastardly loan shark who takes advantage of Sean’s desperation to save his business, there is only the central love triangle to concentrate on, and Thomas struggles to maintain momentum throughout nearly 400 pages. Even the mystery of who is stealing the oysters fails to generate heat, the storyline subjugated by the will-they-won’t-they dynamic of the central couple.

Thomas’ best work is in her characterization of Fiona as unmoored and adrift, vulnerable and searching in the aftermath of the loss of a stable life. Her confusion and earnestness ring true and are bolstered by the urgency of the first-person narration, which is jarred by interludes told from Sean Thornton’s perspective. Overlooking the odd cliché (“He looks up at me and it’s 5 November in my stomach”), The Oyster Catcher is a pleasant Irish confection in which it all comes right in the end.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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