This book is frustrating to me. I want to recommend it, because the first two-thirds or so was full of magic and I loved it, but the last third, in its determination to reach a certain “twist” ending, felt haphazard and forced by comparison and kind of spoiled a lot of what came before. Which is a real shame, because if it could have just stuck the landing with the end, this could have been a four-star review from me.
From the first page, the style of The Toy Makers is carefully crafted, the narrator beckoning you at different times to look here, follow this person, or listen closely, instantly conjuring that flair of a well-told bedtime story, and emphasizing those ordinary moments that seem to carry magic, like the first frost of winter or children at play, all to help set up the magical realism of Papa Jack’s Emporium in London, a place where patchwork dogs come to life, runnerless rocking-horses gallop the aisles, forests of paper trees take root, and children can float in their own personal dirigibles. It’s a compelling world that feels both familiar and fantastical, and instantly had me intrigued and excited about the story.
We first see the emporium through the eyes of Cathy Wray, a pregnant runaway seeking work as a shop assistant in the Christmas season of 1906, and we follow her as she and her daughter eventually become part of the Emporium family as the store weathers the highs and lows of the first half of the twentieth century. The story is mainly Cathy’s, but we also get to see certain moments through the eyes of Kaspar and Emil Godman, Papa Jack’s competitive sons. They’re interesting characters, but I think they all could have had more depth, especially given the amount of detail and description the author provides for the setting and various toys. I mean, there was a point in the story where I was ready to cry because of a patchwork dog, but none of the human characters ever jumped off the page that strongly.
I don’t think that slight knock on characterization would have mattered to me, though, had that final third or so not seemed to muddle the book’s themes so much in its rush to reach an ending. We’re told more than a few times throughout The Toy Makers that “A toy cannot save a life, but it can save a soul,” and the story does a good job of showing that theme in the way Papa Jack’s toys are able to provide hope and remind people in even the most severe of circumstances of the simple joys of childhood. And yet the brotherly rivalry around which the whole story is centered almost completely ignores that theme, with the author hinting, then eventually outright telling you, that one brother is good and one brother is bad, even though it’s clear both are just damaged men who could work out their issues if they talked, until finally a very forced and unconvincing reveal hits the nail on the head that no, their relationship cannot be saved and the “bad” brother is a villain beyond redemption. No attempt is made whatsoever to remind this brother of Papa Jack’s greatest philosophy and bring the story to a more resonant conclusion.
It was disappointing, but mostly irritating because even my half-formed predictions for how this book might end were more interesting and satisfying than what was actually provided. In the end, I’m split on how to rate this book. I think the first half or so rates 3.5 stars, but the last hundred pages feel more like a 2.