Customer Review

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Kaleidoscope of Granted Wishes, 9 Mar. 2007
This review is from: Whitethorn Woods (Hardcover)
I think you'll like this book better than any other that Maeve Binchy has written since Tara Road because of its original exploration of deep human emotions.

Before choosing to read Whitethorn Woods, however, please realize that the book is primarily a series of short stories built around the theme of making a wish. In most cases, the stories are tied together more to one another in her version/his version fashion than to the rest of the stories in the book. The ongoing link among all of the stories is that the characters have some connection to St. Ann's Well in Whitethorn Woods, a Christian-themed site of a pagan place of worship. A portion of the short stories also intersect with the theme of whether or not a new road will lead to the demolition of the well and the woods.

In other words, this is not a novel like you are accustomed to reading by Maeve Binchy such as Tara Road, Scarlet Feather, Quentins, and Nights of Rain and Stars.

I mention that point because I know that many readers who love novels aren't nearly as fond of short stories. And those who love short stories usually don't expect to find many connections between the stories in a collection.

There is a benefit, you can read one of these stories while you are in bed and reach a natural stopping point before you nod off. But in some cases, the first story in a sequence may create an irresistible desire to read the next story to see how things turn out. So you may end up being awake for 15-20 minutes longer than you expected.

If you are still interested, let me explain more. St. Ann (if you don't already know) is the mother of the Virgin Mary, who was mother of Jesus. The well in this case has a statue of St. Ann, but the well's connection to the saint is tenuous because St. Ann never set foot anywhere near Ireland. People come to the well to make their wishes for marriage, children, cures of diseases, and success in other endeavors. Because of the ambiguity, Father Flynn is of two minds about encouraging events at the well. Canon Cassidy, his superior, is pleased at any sign of faith.

For years, people have been seeking their dearest wishes for love and happiness at the well. As the stories suggest, more often than not they found fulfillment. Ms. Binchy leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to why these successes occur. From the stories, you can draw your own conclusions: Was it taking action that provided the desired result . . . or was something more spiritual involved? If more spiritual, was it pagan or God-inspired? From a few of the stories, some will argue that this is a pagan force. You'll enjoy making up your own mind.

If the paired short stories were longer, many of them contain enough character and story juice to make a novella, as for example the stories about Neddy and Clare. Many of the characters have slim ties to one another through family connections, having gone to school with one together, or employment. The purpose seems to be to give you a sense of how Ireland has changed in the last two generations. The effect is quite subtle and well done.

The best part of the book comes in meeting some unusual, and very endearing, characters. There's Neddy, who isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer mentally, but who has a heart of gold. You'll be charmed by Vera, the unmarried older woman who takes a singles vacation with a bunch of youngsters. You'll feel comfortable as Maureen (who becomes Malka) embraces another culture and gains a life-long friendship. You'll love the energy and positivism of Bar (Barbara) as she builds a weekend out of nothing. Can a taxi driver play cupid? You'll have to ask the charming Hugo. The best qualities of a good mom shine through in Pearl. Some people care about making the lives of other grand -- you'll love Poppy and Caroline for that quality.

It's not all sweetness and light. There are also some scoundrels here that you'll enjoy hissing, mostly at lusting men and grasping women. Above those stereotypes, the carefully drawn stories of Becca and Gabrielle will stay with you for a long time after you put this book down. Nasty Dr. Dermot is also a strong and original character. Helen's tale will sear you with a deep emotional brand.

If you are tempted to stop mid-way through, don't. The book gets better as more threads gently tug at one another in the last third of the work.

Ms. Binchy is very good at putting her characters into awkward situations and taking them in surprising new directions. That keeps the book fresh, interesting, and rewarding.

What's the weakness of the book? If you are like me, you'll crave a little more connection across the stories. They are flung a little too broadly for the whole collection to be totally satisfying. For example, I think a whole book about Neddy and Clare would have been more appealing. See what you think.
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