A skilled story teller, Maeve Binchey gives us a captivating, light-hearted story set around “A Week in Winter” (Knopf; $26.95) in which a dozen travelers spend their brief time at Stone House, a guest house on a spectacular windswept cliff in Ireland overlooking the northern Atlantic.
The novel begins with a back story. In the small mill town of Stoneybridge, Geraldine “Chicky” Ryan met Walter Starr, an American law student, when she was 20. He enticed her to go to New York with him; they would be happy and together forever, he pledged. That “forever” lasted a few months; Walter drifted away to his former associates and begged her to go home to Ireland.
Instead, she found a place to live and work in New York, writing home as Mrs. Starr, pretending that Walter had been killed in an automobile accident. When Starr returned home to Stoneybridge after 20 years, she arranged with elderly Miss Queenie Sheedy, to buy Stone House, the decaying mansion which Sheedy no longer could maintain properly. Starr turned Stone House into a restful and attractive place for holiday travelers, advertising it as a welcoming place set in miles of sand and cliffs and wild birds.
With the help of Rigger, a troubled young man who finds his way back to respectability, and her niece, Orla, who has a head for business, Stone House becomes the charming retreat that Starr hoped for – somewhere that the guests could gather for meals in a welcoming kitchen warmed by a log fireplace and good conversation.
Instead of numbering the chapters, Binchy titles each with the name of the principal character of what really is a short story about that character’s life.
In the first named chapter, Winnie, a 34-year-old nurse, is introduced to Teddy Hennessey a successful cheese maker. They fall in love, but Winnie discovers that she must cope with an over-possessive Lillian, Hennessey’s mother. Rather than cancel a reservation at Stone House when his business calls him away, a clueless Hennessey suggests that Winnie take Lillian in his place. There is the expected friction. However, when Winnie and Lillian are trapped in an oceanside cave at high tide, they resolve their differences.
Corry Salinas is an actor and movie star. He missed plane connections to Germany and had a long layover in Ireland. He would miss a meeting he didn’t want to attend; the airline had done him a favor. A week with no commitments seemed intriguing. Remembering that his daughter had enjoyed a trip to Ireland, he decided to stay there. He read about Stone House and called for a reservation, using the name John to remain incognito
Henry and Nicola, doctors serving on a cruise ship, let their humanity get in the way of the ship’s regulations that read that all passengers must be healthy. They protected Helen, a woman who had booked passage for herself, her blind father and her mother suffering from dementia. The good doctors felt guilty about lying to the ship’s staff and confessed to the deception. Even worse, they realize that the automobile accident that killed Helen and her parents just after the cruise really was a suicide. They chose a healing and restful place to regain their equilibrium – Stone House.
Other guests are Anders Almkvist who felt trapped into running his father’s business; Mr. and Mrs. Walls who won a stay at Stone House and find it a better prize than the first place trip to Paris; Freda, a librarian who organized a Friends of the Library festival; and Miss Howe, an unpopular school principal whose farewell gift was a trip to Stone House which she did not enjoy, and left early.
The author brings the characters to life in a distinctive manner, and we feel their anxieties, pains and joys through her words. We care for most of the guests and dislike a couple, but they all seem real. Through the book we learn everyone’s history, as each chapter is written from the point of view of that key character. We also discover how the guests relate to one another in the deftly linked stories. In the end, most have a happy solution to their complications and dilemmas, helped along by the others.
Maeve Binchy is the author of two works of nonfiction and 19 previous novels, many of them best sellers. She lived in Dalkey, Ireland, until her death in July at the age of 72, shortly after finishing this book.