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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Whitethorn Woods

Whitethorn Woods Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
So thus far, this was my least favorite Maeve Binchy, which I expected given that I was rather "eh" about the premise and bought it for $2 Canadian on my last day in Montreal.

The titular woods in Rossmore, Ireland are home to a shrine of St. Ann's that is being threatened with extinction due to a new motorway coming through. Binchy weaves together the stories of dozens of people who live in Rossmore or have prayed at the shrine, leaving the fate of the place itself in the balance until the last possible minute. The theme, obviously, is modernity vs. tradition in Ireland. A lot of the stories are pitch-perfect pleasure-reading sappy, some veer towards being too sappy, but some are unusually sharp and unsentimental for Binchy, including a nasty little murder plot.

Aside from displaying her warmth and emotional acuity, the fact that all the stories are first person reveals that Binchy also has a really great talent for manipulating perspective and unreliable narration. She writes these stories in the voices of flawed people that leave you gasping, somehow, with your feelings of both stern judgment and sympathy for them. Most of the stories in WW are intersecting and paired, too (first you hear from a character, then you hear from his or her sibling/spouse/teacher etc) so you hear bits of the same events from two different points of view, which is very clever and thought-provoking.

So with all this praise, why wasn't this my favorite? Answer: the religious element. It felt a little too hokey, particularly the stuff surrounding the shrine and how the characters truly believe it will answer their prayers. Although Binchy tries to counteract this through the eyes of a skeptical priest (!!) this wasn't enough skepticism to suit my tastes. And more importantly, I'm not sure Binchy really believed it either.

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