Friday, 26 December 2014

Book Review: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy to an old Christmas carol this is the season to be jolly and not to get absorbed in dead-serious or difficult reads – unless you take pleasure in them like I do. However, I decided to put my nature aside for a change and to review a novel that is light and entertaining with the Shakespearean motto “All’s Well That Ends Well” shining through every line. Since it’s also meant to be a contribution for My WINTER Books Special, I’m putting the spotlight on A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy. This last novel of the late Irish author revolves around Stone House in the Western Irish village of Stoneybridge which Geraldine “Chicky” Ryan turns into a cosy little hotel. The grand opening is in December and the first guests stay for a week.

Maeve Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, Ireland, in May 1940. She studied history at University College Dublin and worked as a teacher until fate would have her become a journalist. In 1970 she brought out My First Book, a compilation of her articles. Encouraged by her husband she published two short story collections, Central Line (1978) and Victoria Line (1980), before venturing at a novel. Light a Penny Candle came out in 1982 after having been turned down by publishers five times. It turned out to be a big commercial success and was followed by fifteen more novels in the following three decades, among them Circle of Friends (1990), Tara Road (1998) and Scarlet Feather (2000). Maeve Binchy died in Dublin, Ireland, in July 2012. The novel A Week in Winter and the short story collection Chestnut Street were published posthumously in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

The fictitious Stoneybridge, where guests pass A Week in Winter in the newly opened hotel called Stone House, is a small town on the coast of West Ireland. It’s a place at the back of beyond, but full of natural beauty. Most of the people around are farmers like the Ryan family whose youngest daughter is Geraldine called “Chicky” because she is in charge of the hens. Unlike most of her siblings Chicky stays in Stoneybridge after graduation from high school and gets an office job in the local knitting factory. One summer she meets Walter Starr, a student from a rich American family passing his holidays in the area. Twenty-year-old Chicky falls for him and believing his vows she accompanies him to New York although her parents are fiercely against it. The first months in Brooklyn are as happy as Chicky expected, but then the dream collapses. Walter leaves Chicky and New York altogether just as her parents warned her. However, she isn’t ready to admit that her parents were right all along and keeps feeding them with information about her fantasy life as Walter’s wife. She gets herself a new job in Mrs Cassidy’s boarding house and uses her free time to learn new skills. After five years away from Ireland she begins to pass a one-week-holiday back in the old home every summer. Everybody there knows her as Mrs Starr now. Life is treating Chicky well and she is able to save up some money. After twenty years in the USA her niece threatens to come and see Aunt Chicky and Uncle Walter in New York with a friend. Following the advice of Mrs Cassidy, she tells her family that Walter had a fatal accident. During her next holiday in Stoneybridge Queenie Sheedy, the last of the three Miss Sheedys owning the dilapidating mansion called Stone House, offers Chicky to sell her the old house, so she can turn it into a country hotel. Chicky hesitates at first, but eventually she accepts and returns to Stoneybridge for good. As soon as the contract is sealed, she sets out to restore the old house to new splendour using all her acquired skills and expertise from the boarding house in New York. And along the way she leads the people around her into a happy future, including her first guests.

The story of A Week in Winter is told by an all-knowing third-person narrator who uses each one of the ten chapters to introduce a new character (or two in the case of the married physicians Henry and Nicola and of the Walls) and to make each one of them a temporary protagonist of the novel. They have all come to Stone House for very different reasons. First it’s the turn of the people involved in remodelling the old mansion into a decent country hotel, namely Chicky herself, Rigger (the son of her school friend Nuala who got into serious trouble in Dublin) and Orla (the daughter of her elder sister Katherine who is an expert in event management and public relations). The remaining seven chapters are dedicated to the guests of the opening week in December, to their backgrounds, to their worries and to their hopes. Although neither of them knows, some of them are vaguely interrelated. Uncongenial and cold Miss Nell Howe, for instance, used to be the boss of Irene who married Chicky’s brother Nasey in Dublin just in August. The homely atmosphere of the novel where all troubles are sorted out and every piece of the life puzzle seems to fall into place, is emphasised by the presence of a black and white cat called Gloria. The author’s language and style are adequate for a light read, thus simple and fluent.

It’s true that A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy doesn’t really fit into my usual reads because it overflows with optimism and lucky coincidences bringing everything to a good end without the great effort and constant struggle that real life uses to ask of most of us. Nonetheless the story is realistic enough not to make me despair at the author’s unwordliness. I enjoyed the novel although it is light and entertaining which is something that doesn’t often happen. Consequently I’m ready to recommend it without reserve.

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