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Book Review: A Week in Winter

A Week in Wintera-week-in-winter

by Maeve Binchy

Knopf, 2013

The utterly charmed writing life of Irish author Maeve Binchy has one last spell in its grimoire, sad and happy by equal measures. Happy because her latest book, A Week in Winter, is every bit as warm and inviting as everything else she ever wrote. And sad because there will be no more: Binchy died in the summer. And yet even in that sadness there’s a flicker of charm:  to write a book as your health fails you, to finish it and hand it in to your publisher with a smile of work well done, and then to be off and let it come so neatly after you – no unfinished work, no untidy manuscripts covered in bread crumbs, nothing left to the wondering about.

And no posthumous disappointments either: if it weren’t so wistful to say it, calling A Week in Winter ‘vintage Binchy’ wouldn’t be inaccurate at all.

It’s the story of Stone House, the old home of the three beautiful Sheedy sisters, Beatrice, Jessica, and Miss Queenie. Stone House is in Stoneybridge, a small village on the coast of Ireland, a place fled in short order by Geraldine “Chicky” Ryan in order to follow a charismatic man to America, much to the mortification of her relatives. The man wanders off after a short while, and Chicky is thrown onto her own devices (“she’s got guts altogether,” one character says of her), working and saving money, and gradually being forgiven by her family back home (she can’t bear how smug they’d be at learning the truth; she tells them he died in a tragic accident). During a visit to Stoneybridge, Chicky is approached by the sole surviving Sheedy sister, Old Queenie (“Two of the old Miss Sheedys had been carried away by pneumonia in the winter,” we’re told in one of the book’s many inimitably Irish asides, “The old person’s friend, it was called; it ended life peacefully for those who couldn’t catch their breath”), with the idea of using Chicky’s savings to turn Stone House into an inn and advertising it as a peaceful destination for a week’s vacation by the sea.

“You’d make is special,” [Miss Queenie tells Chicky] “a place for people like you.”

“There’s no one like me, no one as odd and complicated.”

“You’d be surprised, Chicky. There are lots of them. And I won’t be around here for long, anyway; I’m going to join my sisters in the churchyard soon, I’d say. So you should really have to decide to do it now, and then we can plan what we are going to do to make Stone House lovely again.”

Just as the planning and preparation is almost complete, Miss Queenie does indeed join her sisters – she’s discovered dead in her bed by Orla, Chicky’s no-nonsense niece, who promptly tells her aunt about the loss. Chicky is briefly nonplussed:

“How can you be so calm? Poor Queenie. Poor, dear Queenie. She had no life.”

Orla stretched out her hand. “Come in and see her, Chicky. Just look at her face. You’ll know she had a life, and you gave it to her.”

In the course of the book, it’s Binchy who gives life to her big cast of characters, investing them, as she always does, with instantly recognizable humanity even if we’re scarcely going to run across them more than once. When a landlord is complimented on the chunks of chicken in his soup, he responds proudly, “That chicken was running around the backyard yesterday morning,” and we feel like we know the man through the non sequitur.

The book’s main people, of course, receive more lavish attention. They’re the colorful assortment of wanderers who make their way to Stone House to be its first group of guests and whose various histories give a nice wide scope to Binchy’s storytelling talents. Much like Veronese (though she’d have hated so snooty a comparison), she has a comparatively small but extremely serviceable group of stock-characters in her company, characters who can be stripped of their names and costumes and given new ones as each book’s plot demands, but whose natures stay comfortably the same. There are rogues (including Rigger, Chicky’s man-of-work around the house), there are world-weary souls (in this case a wonderfully-portrayed married couple, two doctors), there’s a joyless prig (here a retired school teacher, but it could have been anybody whose chief sin is unfriendliness), there’s the wayward mystic, and there’s the requisite dash of glamor, this time in the form of movie star Corry Salinas, who fetches up in Stoneybridge half-intent on some kind of personal reinvention (to underscore his unsure nature, Binchy speckles his sections with open-ended questions), constantly second-guessing even his own generous nature:

Their conversation drifted around [him, in a pub] … He wondered if he should buy everyone a drink. That’s what would happen in a movie. But life wasn’t a movie. These men might be affronted. He gave them his big, enveloping smile and promised he would come back again.

There’s also a noble foreigner, Anders Almkvist, next in line to his father’s accounting firm in Stockholm but passionate only about music. His plot line is perhaps the book’s most rewarding, since it touches most directly on the unlikely heroism of following private dreams (to put it mildly, this was our author’s favorite theme – not surprisingly, since it was also her life). And when a knotted bit of plotting finds Anders sitting down at the kitchen table in the Irish country house belonging to the old father of a new acquaintance, the two men – strangers until this minute – fall into easy conversation:

They talked about farming and how it had changed over the years, about the recession and how all the town houses that the uppity O’Haras had built were standing empty like a ghost estate because people had been greedy and thought that the Celtic Tiger would last forever. He spoke about his other children, who had done well for themselves abroad. He said that Shep, the dog, was blind now and useless but would always have a home.

There’s a sly talent in passages like that; any honest novelist (yes, well …) will tell you they aren’t as easy as they look. It’s not a grand talent, to sit two characters at a kitchen table and have them talk of ordinary things in an ordinary way, but Binchy was heir to a long line of Irish writers who had that talent in springtime abundance. A Week in Winter weaves a dozen life stories together, giving each one its own payoff while reserving a special spotlight for battered Chicky, who risks everything to start a new life.

In the book’s final pages, she’s looking to the future, ready for anything. And that’s no bad way to end things.

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