Fiction – paperback; Orion Books; 450 pages; 2007.
Holed up in bed mid-week with a terrible head cold I didn’t feel much like taxing my brain power, and so it was I came to read Maeve Binchy’s latest paperback, Whitethorn Woods. I won’t be the first to admit that Binchy’s novels aren’t exactly intellectually stimulating — they’re warm and fluffy and make you feel all gooey inside, perfect fodder for reading on the beach or curled up in bed when you’re unwell. But this one, I’m sorry to say, was a disappointing read.
The thing that bugged me most was not the storytelling, which is typically enjoyable, heart-warming Binchy fare, but the complete failure of the publisher to specify anywhere on the cover or blurb that this is actually a collection of interconnected short stories and not a novel. I am not a fan of the short story for no other reason than they generally leave me feeling dissatisfied, because I want to know more about the characters, their motivations and lives. On that basis I’m a novel-reading kind of gal, and that’s probably how it will always be.
Whitethorn Woods comprises 13 short stories, each one divided into two parts so that the same story is told from two different points of view, an interesting “twist” which demonstrates Binchy’s exemplary story-telling skills. The characters in each story are all from the same place — a once sleepy Irish town called Rossmore, which is now booming but is choked by traffic.
These stories are connected by three “bridging” chapters — at the start, middle and end — which explain how the town’s woods and a well dedicated to St Ann are threatened by a new bypass. It’s a nifty idea, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Binchy had simply chucked together all those unpublished short stories she’s written over the years, perhaps the ones languishing in the bottom drawer, and inserted a few common themes — the woods, the spiritual well, the town’s traffic problem — in order to get the next book out and into the shops. That might sound harsh, but as a reader I have to admit feeling slightly cheated by this book.
Still, if you like short stories, this is a good little collection, provided you don’t mind Binchy’s rather simplistic, sometimes cloying, view of life in which hard work is always rewarded, love can be found in the most unexpected of places and good things happen to kind people.
But personally, as much as I enjoyed reading about the quiet lives told within each story, I struggled to enjoy Whitethorn Woods as a whole.
If you’ve not read anything by Maeve Binchy before, I suggest this is not the place to start, because if you do it could well be the last Binchy you ever read — and that would be a sad thing given her extraordinary back catalogue of feel-good fiction.