SPELLBOUND by Jeanette Baker is a spectacular story. It's set on Inishmore in the Aran Islands and is basically about Mollie Tierney, an American (born on Inishmore with an Irish father and American mother, but raised in America after her parents divorce her mother leaving with Mollie, leaving her 10-year-old son Danny with his father). Mollie has been writing to her sister-in-law, Kerry, for several years, although they have never met, and she helps Mollie obtain a fellowship to teach school on Inishmore for a year. But before Mollie arrives, Kerry dies in childbirth, and several weeks later Danny dies in an accident. They leave three young children and a will giving custody of them to Danny and Mollie's mother, Emma. But Kerry's twin brother, playwright, Sean O'Malley, has been caring for the children in the interim and is reluctant to give them up.
Sean and Mollie are attracted to one another from the beginning. But Sean knows how tough life is in the Aran Islands and believes Mollie to be like her mother, unable to handle the culture change and the isolation. He is afraid of committing to her - feeling that she'd leave eventually - just like her mother. He's also concerned about the children, feeling that being raised by Emma in California would be detrimental to them, despite the wishes of their parents. It isn't too much longer before Emma, now happily married to an American doctor, returns to Inishmore as well, and to an encounter with the ex-husband she hasn't seen in 28 years.
A disastrous oil spill brings the island to an economical standstill and also an American, Russ a veterinarian from California, to the area to help save some of the marine animals. It's clear that Russ finds Mollie attractive and Emma, feeling that Mollie would be much better off with Russ than Sean, Emma tries her best to orchestrate a love match between the two. It's clear though that Mollie's heart is with Sean. She just has to get him to realize she is not her mother.
Jeanette Baker has written a gem of a story that portrays the struggles of the fishermen on a small island and a culture, which is unique to them. She does a wonderful job with the children eight-year-old Marni, and five-year-old Caili, making them so lovable and likeable, I wanted to take custody of them! There is also a subplot involving Mollie's father, Patrick, and the woman who loved him even before he met Emma. Is it too late for them to try again?
But this is Sean and Mollie's story. And they are both sympathetic characters. And Russ, although vying for Mollie's affections, isn't a villain either. Mollie is portrayed as a mature young woman, free of the game playing found in so many contemporary heroines. She is intelligent, independent, but unable to resist Sean O'Malley.
Will Sean and Mollie realize the love they share is real before a tragedy threatens to rip them apart?
Baker excels in so many areas with this book it's difficult to know where to begin. The feelings Sean has regarding his nieces and nephew are so endearing. Taking care of a newborn is never easy, but Sean gives it his all. The resentment he feels towards Mollie with the knowledge that Kerry and Danny wanted their children cared for by Emma, is very believable. His fear of commitment to Mollie, despite his feelings, is also realistic, given her similarities to her mother.
Every character in this book is so well drawn -- not just the two main characters. From Patrick and Emma to Caili and Marni, they all seem like people we know - or would like to know. And with Baker's vivid descriptions, I could swear I could smell the peat fires and the brewing tea.
But the real star of this book is the island of Inishmore (Inis Mór). The largest of the three Aran islands, they lie just off the west coast of Ireland. They are so near the hustle and bustle of Galway with all its modern conveniences, yet they are so far away -- almost as if it were a different country or another place and time. Most of the inhabitants of the Aran islands rely more on old ways than new conveniences. Their isolation dictates that they be self-sufficient because there are times when, as near as they are to the mainland, transportation there is impossible. Buggies and wagons are the preferred mode of transportation (although there are cars - but only one gas station and no repair shops). The main forms of income for the inhabitants are fishing and tourism. Many of the inhabitants speak Irish (Gaelic) which has enjoyed a renewal throughout Ireland, but particularly in the West. Those who have been to the Aran islands or are familiar with their stark beauty, void of trees; of the miles of rock fences separating property, of the thatched roof cottages with smoke from the peat fire billowing from their chimneys, can certainly visualize the setting very well. But with Baker's vivid description, even those unfamiliar with the area will get a good idea of what it looks like.
I also enjoyed the descriptions of shops in Galway (including Kenny's Bookstore)and in Dublin (I am ready to stay at Number 31 - a real guesthouse).
Read and enjoy. I am glad I have Jeanette Baker's other books in my TBR pile, because I certainly would be searching for them after reading this one. I'm also ready to call Aer Lingus and book a flight to Ireland!