My best friend came up this weekend, so we went to the mall for pedicures, which naturally involved a stop at Barnes and Noble for coffee and browsing. After picking up the book I really wanted (the second part of a trilogy I recently started), I looked around a bit, and when I saw this, remembered all the rave reviews I'd seen of this novel last year. While it had sounded sweet, I wasn't quite sure if it was my cup of tea originally, so I hadn't rushed out to get it, but obviously the title stuck in my head.
The novel is set at the Tower of London, and the two main characters are Balthazar Jones and his wife, Hebe. As a Beefeater, or Yeoman Warder, Balthazar and his wife live at the Tower along with their almost two century old tortoise, Mrs. Cook. There are a myriad of supporting characters in the novel, including the other Beefeaters and Tower inhabitants, and the people that Hebe comes across working at the Underground's Lost Property Office. Following their son Milo's death three years before, Hebe and Balthazar have started to drift apart. While they had always been a close and loving couple, their methods of coping with grief are very different, and instead of finding shelter in each other, they become isolated from each other. Jones has developed an odd obsession with charting types of rain, while Hebe simply wants to discuss their son.
After one of the animals presented to the Queen as a royal gift dies, almost causing an international scandal, the Queen decides to move her personal animals from the British Zoo and reestablish the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, placing Balthazar in charge of it due to his tortoise. Naturally, there are some hijinks involved with the animals, especially since the Ravenmaster, who is also the closest Jones gets to having an archnemesis is less than happy with the changes and starts developing plots. A lot of the characters in this novel are unlucky in love - several are divorced, the Reverend Septimus Jones is still trying to find a woman that would be willing to live in the Tower with him, and all are rather gunshy as a result. Hebe's coworker tentatively enters a relationship with a fellow unlucky divorcee. Most of the characters are sweet, but I wouldn't call them very well developed. They have distinguishing character quirks, and it is hard not to root for them but they are also relatively superficial. My favorite was probably the Reverend who writes erotica in his spare time when not trying to handle the rat problem in his chapel.
Overall, it was a sweet novel, the quirk being balanced out by the sadness and grief that has infected the main characters' lives. I am curious how many of the facts about the Tower are true, because some of them were very entertaining. And of course, it's hard not to enjoy the animals (don't worry, no important animals die in this to make some type of point), especially the parrot, the bearded pig and the albatross, who obviously represents Balthazar. I think this would work best for an afternoon on the couch with tea and small cakes or cookies.