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Posts Tagged ‘Maeve Binchy’

afteryouCertain books, movies and sad songs have been known to move me to tears — as well as parades, the national anthem and ads for greeting cards. Yep, I’m a crybaby, even when I know my emotions are being shamelessly manipulated. That’s the way I felt reading Jojo Moyes’ bestseller of several years back, Me Before You, about young caregiver/companion Louisa Clark and quadriplegic Will Traynor. If you haven’t read it, do so before reading the sequel After You (Viking Penguin, digital galley), or even the rest of this column. There be spoilers.

The story picks up 18 months after the events of the first book, but Lou isn’t living the interesting, fulfilled life that Will envisioned for her. Travel to Europe did little to assuage her grief, and now a sterile London flat and a crummy job working in an airport bar aren’t helping either. Mired in depression, a tipsy Lou ventures out on her roof one night and inadvertently falls off. A paramedic tells her she’s lucky to have survived.

Recovering in the hospital and then at her parents’ house in her childhood bedroom, Lou has a better understanding of Will’s situation and his desire to end his life, but she still is surprised that everyone seems to think she tried to commit suicide. She reluctantly joins a grief support group whose counselor talks about “moving on,” but it isn’t until troubled teenage Lily turns up at her door in London that Lou gets her skates on, after a fashion.

Moyes is an assured storyteller in the Maeve Binchy mode, offering up generous helpings of smiles and tears. After You isn’t as emotionally resonant as its predecessor because the focus is more diffuse as Moyes explores how grief reverberates in the wake of Will’s death. But it’s not all heavy going — Lou’s mother asserts her independence to the consternation of her bemused husband; Lily’s casual selfishness and vulnerability forces Lou to some decisions, as does the possibility of romance with the same paramedic who rescued her from her fall.

Still, Lou ultimately has to pick herself up, and it’s this struggle, in all its fits and starts, that Moyes chronicles with humor and compassion. She also leaves the door open to the possibility of a third book, reminding us that life is rarely tidy and loose ends make it interesting.

 

 

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fikryIf bookstores attract you like magnets, you’ll find Gabrielle Zevin’s charming novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, review ARC) absolutely irresistible. “No Man is an Island. Every Book is a World.” So says the sign over the door of Island Books, housed in a Victorian cottage on a fictional New England island. Alas, owner A.J. Fikry seems to have forgotten the sign since his young wife died in a car accident and his business took a nosedive. He fends off friends, like the police chief with a taste for crime fiction. He pushes away his sister-in-law, the disappointed wife of a philandering author. He even makes free-spirited Amelia, the new sales rep for Knightley Press, depart in tears. But just like in a storybook (!), A.J.’s pleasure in life, love and books will be renewed with the arrival of an unexpected package. Not all at once, though, and not without tears. Bittersweet proves sweet.

northangerJane Austen had some fun writing Northanger Abbey, but Catherine Morland always struck me as a ninny. I like her much more as Cat Morland in Val McDermid’s clever update of Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). This home-schooled daughter of a Dorset minister loves novels, especially paranormal fiction like Twilight and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (wink wink). Cat’s horizons broaden when family friends invite her to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she becomes BFF  with socialite Bella Thorpe, who is crushing on Cat’s brother, and meets enigmatic Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Gee, she’s awfully pale, and something weird is going on at the Tilney family estate, Northanger Abbey. McDermid, an award-winning crime novelist, sticks to the bones of Austen’s plot but fleshes it out with modern details. If it reads a bit like a YA novel, that’s ok; Cat is just 17. Still, I could have done without slang expressions like “Totes amazeballs.” So last year.

chestnutFans of the late Irish writer Maeve Binchy will welcome Chestnut Street (Knopf Doubleday, digital), a collection of stories about the neighbors of a middle-class Dublin street. Binchy wrote the stories over a period of years, sticking them in a drawer with the idea of a book in mind. Approved by her husband, the writer Gordon Snell, the stories vary in length and complexity, but the characters are familiar types from previous Binchy books, ordinary folks facing domestic crises and misunderstandings. There’s the teenager who’s unexpectedly pregnant like an aunt before her, who went to America and visits once a year. There’s the divorced mum who minds her tongue and allows her grown daughter to make her own decisions. There’s the mistress who belatedly realizes her predicament, the stingy uncle and his estranged niece, the spiteful woman who resents her friendly new neighbor, the four strangers who meet in a takeaway on New Year’s Eve and reunite every year thereafter. Several stories beg to be longer. Oh, it would have been grand to have a Binchy novel about the visiting friend who becomes the street’s favorite fortune teller after picking up on the local gossip.

Nohopestreett everyone can see the titular building in The House at the End of Hope Street (Viking Penguin, paperback review copy), a whimsical literary confection by Meena van Praag. But young Cambridge grad student Alba Ashby, overwhelmed by a stunning personal and academic betrayal, is welcomed to 11 Hope Street by landlady Peggy Abbot, who tells her she can stay 99 nights. As former residents whose portraits hang on the walls — Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Parker, among them — can attest, the house will work its peculiar magic during this time. Van Praag reminds me of Alice Hoffman as she recounts Alba’s time at Hope Street, which overlaps with that of actress Greer, disappointed in love, and singer Carmen, who has buried a dark secret in the garden. Did I mention the portraits talk to one another and a pretty ghost hangs out in the kitchen?

jasmineDeanna Raybourn, author of the popular Lady Julia series, has another smart heroine in aviatrix Evangeline Starke, who narrates the winning City of Jasmine (Harlequin, digital galley). Five years after losing her husband with the sinking of the Lusitania, Evie is flying around the world in her plane The Jolly Roger, when she receives a recent photograph of the presumed-dead Gabriel Starke. She immediately heads for Damascus, with her eccentric aunt and a parrot in tow, to find Gabriel, who once worked an archaeological dig in the area. If he’s alive, she just might kill him — for abandoning her after four months of marriage. Action and adventure, romance and history, secrets and spies! Ah, good times.

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binchywinterSure, and it was sad news when Irish writer Maeve Binchy died last summer at 72.  At the time, I went back and reread several of my favorite novels — Light a Penny Candle, Firefly Summer, Circle of Friends — and mourned that there would be no more. Not so fast. Binchy left her readers one last novel, A Week in Winter (Knopf, digital galley), and a grand winter’s tale it is, with a vintage ensemble cast.

What ties these disparate, flawed characters togther is Stoneybridge, a village on Ireland’s west coast. Chicky left home at 19 to go to New York with a young American; years later, she returns with a story of having been widowed but with enough money to turn Miss Queenie’s decaying mansion into a tourist hotel. The naysayers are many, but Chicky enlists the help of bad boy Rigger, and the job of handyman turns out to be the making of him. Chicky’s niece Orla leaves her London job and flash lifestyle to lend her business skills. And so Stone House is ready to welcome its first guests for a week in winter.

As in novels like The Copper Beech and Silver Wedding, Binchy rotates chapters among the characters, filling in back stories as the guests meet up in the cozy lounge with its roaring fire and black-and-white cat. Winnie, a newly engaged nurse, arrives with her fiance’s glamorous mother, reluctant to let go of her son or her youth. A famous American actor checks in under an assumed name, hoping no one will recognize him in this backwater. A pair of married doctors seeks solace after a trauma. A middle-aged couple addicted to entering contests aren’t happy that their holiday is second-prize to a Paris trip. A retired schoolteacher is her own worst enemy, spreading doom and gloom wherever she goes. And then there’s the psychic with a broken heart.

“It’s a funny old world,” one character remarks early on, and it’s just that in Binchy’s books. Her readers know that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, that life is both sunshine and shadows. Still, things have a way of working out, although not necessarily the way one wished. Ah, Maeve Binchy, we’ll miss you. How bittersweet it is.

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Sure and don’t you know we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day? I feel that way, too, whenever I read one of Maeve Binchy’s pillowy novels, which are stuffed with all manner of people and stories and all things Irish.

At the center of Binchy’s newest, Minding Frankie, is Noel Lynch, a late-20s, hard-drinking no-hoper who is suddenly informed by a one-night stand that he’s about to become a father. Pragmatic Stella is not only pregnant but also dying of cancer, and she wants to leave the care of the daughter she will never know to Noel.

Reluctance is as natural to Noel as the drink, but he’s convinced by his parents, his American cousin Emily and the other working-class Dubliners of St. Jarlath’s Crescent that he’ll be a grand single dad. So Noel goes to AA, starts taking business classes so he can move up the ladder at work, and finds lots of help when it comes to minding Frankie. The only person who thinks Frankie would be better off in foster care is humorless social worker Moira, who is just waiting for Noel to fall off the wagon so she can whisk the baby away.

Readers of sunch previous Binchy novels as Quentins, Scarlet Feather, and Heart and Soul, will recognize some familiar flawed characters, all with a connection to Frankie, in the large supporting cast. Each has his or her own story — an unrequited love, a terminal illness, a lost job, a new-found son. It can sometimes be a bit confusing. Is it Kathy who is Noel’s platonic roommate Lisa’s sister and who wants a baby of her own, or is that Carla, the daughter of a nurse at St. Brigid’s? Is Dingo a guy and Hooves a dog, or is it the other way around?

Over the course of the year leading up to Frankie’s first birthday, there will be dramas small and large, smiles all around, and a few tears. It’s very Binchy.  Make yourself a cuppa and settle in.

Open Book: I bought a hardcover copy of Maeve Binchy’s Minding Frankie (Knopf Doubleday) so I could share it with my mother (known as Frankie to her grandchildren). We’ve been reading and rereading Binchy’s books since Light a Penny Candle. Wouldn’t miss one.

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