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The biggest disappointment with Whitethorn Woods comes in remembering that it's fiction.
By the time the last page was turned, I wanted to visit the Irish town of Rossmore and have my hair done by Fabian, buy a newspaper from Skunk Slatterly, take tea with Clare and Neddy Nolan, do some laundry at the Fresh as a Daisy, and have dinner in the hotel.
Such is the charm of a Maeve Binchy book.
The Irish author knows how to bring characters to life so well that it almost hurts to think they aren't real.
And that talent thoroughly disguises the fact that her novels occasionally don't have much of a plot.
Whitethorn Woods is one of those.
fea Scanned bookcover of WHITETHORN WOODS by Maeve Binchy. NOT BLADE PHOTO
The plot, such as it is, revolves around rumors of a new highway that will bypass Rossmore. The rumors divide the town, which has grown over the years from a sleepy village to a bustling, busy burg. Some people, especially the farmers who will be well-compensated by the government for their land, are rooting for the highway. Others fear such a bypass will kill the town's businesses. No one will get off a busy highway to stop for flowers at the garden center or sip a pint in the pub or browse the charming shops.
What really galvanizes opinions is St. Ann's Well, a shrine in the forest to the mother of the Virgin Mary. Local tradition holds that St. Ann will grant the petitions of those who pray to her, and the shrine gets a lot of visits from those seeking divine assistance with matters of the heart or health.
The young priest, Brian Flynn, doesn't know what to think about the shrine. Logic tells him it's just superstition; St. Ann, when she lived, was nowhere near Ireland. But so many people believe, and so many unexplained things have happened to those who have prayed there, he's afraid to criticize it.
Father Flynn's puzzlement may be moot, however. If the highway comes through, it will destroy the shrine.
Whether or not the highway is built is really not the point of Whitethorn Woods. The book's appeal lies in getting to know the people whose lives have been touched by the shrine, if only marginally.
One is Neddy Nolan. For all of his life, Neddy has been told that he's "not the sharpest knife in the drawer." But he is honest and thrifty and devoted to his family, and sometimes those virtues are rewarded.
There's Lily Flynn, whose baby was stolen from her pram 20 years earlier and never found. And the retiree Vera who goes on a singles holiday with a group of young people and, to her surprise, finds love.
Maureen found her best friend, Rivka, at a kibbutz during a summer's working holiday in Israel in the 1970s, and although they live thousands of miles apart, Maureen in Rossmore, Rivka in New York, their friendship has withstood the storms of husbands, children, and time.
One mother and daughter come to Ireland to visit the land of James Joyce and discover a family. Another mother and daughter reveal a more poisonous set of dynamics, with murder and the tabloids a big part of their life.
One sister is determined to be well thought of and elegantly turned out, the kind of woman other women envy. Her frumpy sister is determined to be happy. Both get what they wish for.
Binchy is the master of the "six degrees of separation" game. Often in her books, including Whitethorn Woods, what happens in one place - London, perhaps - will have repercussions decades later in another.
Many themes flow through Whitethorn Woods: love, friendship, loyalty, hope, and despair among them.
Some characters are likeable, others are not. But all are fascinating to the point that the stories of the highway and of the well don't matter at all.
But the stories of the people are hard to put down.
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