I wasn't sure how to rate this one. I bought it on a whim, thinking it would be a typical British historical/chick-lit type read; the kind I really enjoy once in awhile when I need a break from my regularly scheduled genres.
It's exactly what I expected, except it's written by an Aussie author. Aussie authors and I tend to have an on-again-off-again kind of relationship and my last fling with The Dressmaker left me, frankly, bitter and jaded. So I went into this one feeling defensive and ready for confrontation, which might have coloured my perceptions a little.
This is a lovely story about a woman who applies to run one of the British Restaurants, created during WWII to offer hot, nutritious, and affordable meals to Londoners struggling under food rationing. Maggie's struggle to keep her restaurant going in spite of food shortages and diverted allotments runs parallel to her attempts to help a young boy find his father and her very slowly developing relationship with a Polish refugee.
The author really brought home a tiny glimpse of what life must have been like living in London during the axis air raids of WWII; she didn't shy away from scenes of Maggie and her neighbours huddled underground during a bombing; the alternate neighbourhoods that sprung up in the Underground stations, or the way homes and business disappeared overnight after a bombing raid.
What she didn't get quite right, I don't think, is the gap-tooth style of the narrative overall: unknown quantities of time pass unexpectedly without acknowledgement and relatively significant events are never fleshed out.
From the beginning the reader is told that one of Maggie's brothers died when they were kids. A tragedy; hints that Maggie was involved and that her mother abandoned them in large part because of this tragedy...and then nothing.
Janek belongs to some Polish resistance organisation that may or may not be spying, but has the need to hide mysterious shipments of something at Maggie's restaurant without her knowledge. We never find out if Janek is a bad guy or a good guy, nor whether or not that shipment was ever hidden at the restaurant; the whole thing just gets dismissed near the end with a vague line or two. As Janek is the romantic interest in the book, a reader can't really be blamed for expecting a bit more information about him and his possible shenanigans.
Small things too, like details about the British Restaurant scheme, are never explained. Does Maggie own the restaurant? Is she leasing it from the government? We're told Maggie received grants for renovations and equipment, but then she's put on probation with the possibility of being removed and replaced... so is she an owner or an employee? Information was spotty and vague and at least some of it was central to the plot's crisis.
I don't know if I'm being hypercritical or not, but I can't help but think that even though I enjoyed the story as-is - and I really did - it could have been utterly fabulous with a more insightful editor and some restructuring. There is a lot here that could have been removed and never missed, and plenty that wasn't here, but very much missed.