About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

#39 - Heart and Soul, and not much of either

Did you ever have a much-anticipated reunion with an old friend, or revisit a place you once loved, only to find it not nearly as wonderful as you'd remembered? You've grown apart from your friend, or your favorite diner has gone to seed ... either way, you have this treasured picture in your mind, and reality just doesn't measure up.

Or have you ever been out to eat, and seen your mouth water at that lovely-looking lemon meringue pie that was on its way out for dessert ... only to discover, with the first disgusted mouthful, that it's not actually lemon after all, but (blagh! ptui!) banana.

Well, that's kinda what happened when I read Heart and Soul, by Maeve Binchy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). I usually enjoy Binchy's books; they're not great literature, but they're warm feel-good reads with interesting characters and satisfying plot developments. Circle of Friends is still in high rotation when I'm in the mood to reread an old favorite, and I feel I know its principals better than most of my cousins. Not so here, sadly. I was trying to explain how disappointed I was by this book, and stumbled across an online review that captured my own reactions rather nicely:

"It's a sad day when an author you first discovered decades ago as a reliable purveyor of great escapist sagas can no longer deliver the goods the way he or she once did. But I must admit, reluctantly, the Maeve Binchy I once enjoyed ... is no more. In her place, someone is writing cute, but slight, feel-good tales set in a Binchy-like landscape."

-S. McGee, from this review

The story revolves around a new cardiac care clinic in a rough-but-up-and-coming Dublin neighborhood. Its main character is the clinic's reluctant director, Dr. Clara Casey, who knows this job isn't quite where she'd expected to be, but ends up throwing herself into it wholeheartedly (pardon the pun) rather than expend any more energy on her soon-to-be-ex-husband and their two selfish, entitled grown daughters. She quickly staffs the facility with a typical Binchy mix of quirky characters: kind young doctor Declan Carroll, whose proud but judgmental parents leave him little space for a life of his own; Jill-of-all-trades Ania, a hardworking Polish immigrant struggling to save enough money to make up for disgracing her mother with a sleazy, two-timing boyfriend; Hillary, whose fierce devotion to the mother who helped her raise her son after Hillary's husband died makes her blind to her mother's growing need for more care than she can provide; and Fiona, a lovely but humble nurse whose history with heartbreak and unsuitable men keeps her from trusting her deepening love for Declan, or his for her.

Frequent Maeve mavens may recognize Fiona from Nights of Rain and Stars, and indeed, Heart and Soul features a veritable reunion of old Binchy characters in supporting roles. Every special occasion is celebrated in Quentins restaurant, where Brenda and Patrick Brennan make their appearance. Aidan Dunne from Evening Class has a heart attack that leaves him torn between retiring from his rewarding-but-rough teaching position or soldiering on to provide a comfy pension for his beloved Nora. Maud and Simon, the energetic oddball twins from Scarlet Feather, help cater a fancy anniversary party attended by the principals. And I understand that Father Brian Flynn, the new-to-Dublin country priest whose commitment to Ireland's immigrants is nearly undone by deluded stalker Eileen Edwards, comes to us straight from Whitethorn Woods, though I didn't read this one myself.

While some reviewers enjoyed all these special guest stars, and I usually get a chuckle from seeing this done in moderation, I found it a bit excessive and lazy in this case. For one thing, it makes for so many characters and story lines that they all seem a bit pot-bound, and none gets quite enough light or soil to really develop fully. Instead of basically good-hearted characters with a handful of humanizing quirks and flaws, we get a whole chorus of stock characters, who for the most part are two-dimensional, and seem too perfect to be believable. For another, the small-town coincidences that work fairly well in some of Binchy's other books don't quite seem credible in the bustling Dublin of the early 2000s. Are we really to believe that Quentin's is the only restaurant in the city equipped for a proper, pull-out-the-stops celebration? That the mysterious Eileen's mother just happens to turn up at the clinic? That Fiona's experience in Greece still affects her so deeply after all this time?

I also found the structure and pacing of the novel a bit cumbersome. Rather than weaving the character's stories together throughout the book, Binchy tells each character's story in turn. One chapter tells Hillary's story, the next Declan's, the next Ania's, and so on. The end result is that this feels less like a single cohesive narrative than like a collection of interrelated short stories, and not a particularly compelling one at that. Then, in about the last quarter of the book, it's as though Binchy threw all the characters and stories up into the air, and patched them together as best as she could with duct tape and twist ties. The ending manages to be both sloppy and overly tidy at the same time.

Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh here, as this really wasn't an awful book. I did enjoy the glimpses of the new, prosperous Ireland of the 1990s and early 2000s, especially from an author who's set stories there in pretty much every decade of the last 50 years. We see an exuberant real estate bubble, an influx of Eastern European immigrants, an explosion of ethnic groceries and restaurants, and naturally, some backlash from the native-born Irish. The plot and characters were mildly interesting, so it wasn't a chore to get through ... it's just a big leap from there to "couldn't put it down," which was what I'd hoped for from this author.

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