Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dear Ms. Binchy, Where's the Dazzle?

If you've never read Maeve Binchy before, you might not want to start with her newest effort. In fact, you probably shouldn't start with any of her last 3 or 4 novels. Go back to the early books (Circle of Friends, The Glass Lake, Light A Penny Candle), so you can experience Binchy at her finest. Even her less spectacular novels glow with trademark warmth, but certain titles (like the ones listed above) absolutely dazzle. I wanted Heart and Soul to be one of these, but it just doesn't sparkle the way I hoped it would. It's good. Just lacking in dazzle.

The story revolves around a newly-opened heart clinic in Dublin. Housed in an unused storage depot owned by St. Brigid's Hospital, the clinic comes under the supervision of one Frank Ennis. The cranky administrator had hoped to sell the building for a handsome profit; outvoted by the hospital board, Frank now supervises the very heart clinic he vehemently opposed. He's not impressed with the new director, either - despite her glowing resume, Dr. Clara Casey's a ball-buster who won't take no for an answer. Soon, she's brought on a team of professionals who quickly turn the clinic into an organized, efficient establishment with a growing list of satisfied patients. Still, Frank seems hell-bent on keeping the clinic unsupported and underfunded, which only makes Clara more determined to make the project a success.

Employees, patients and friends of the establishment take turns telling the story of The Little Clinic That Could, while also ruminating on their own lives. This "Everybody Has a Story" technique is vintage Binchy - it's what makes her books so enjoyable. So, we meet Ania, a Polish immigrant who works tirelessly to earn money for the mother she shamed back home; Fiona, a friendly nurse with a mysterious past; Declan, a doctor who pines for Fiona; Clara's two self-absorbed daughters; Bobby, a good-natured heart patient, who's devoted to a woman no one else can stand; and many more colorful, very relatable characters. This motley crew supply myriad subplots to sustain the reader when the main plotline drags (as it often does).

What Heart and Soul lacks in plot it makes up for in rich characterization. Binchy also brings Dublin to life, even bringing back people from previous novels to help establish authenticity. On the flip side, the story drags in some places and lacks cohesion in others. Too many characters (however loveable they are) makes for a great deal of confusion - I kept forgetting who was who. All in all, I liked the book, but didn't love it. I expect more from this venerable author, who charmed me with her magical early novels. She's delivered in the past, so I'm not giving up on Ms. Binchy, but c'mon, Maeve, a girl's gotta have some dazzle. Maybe next time, eh?

Grade: B-

4 comments:

  1. I'll definitely read this one, but couldn't agree more with you that Binchy's older books are just...better. Dazzle is a good word to describe them.

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  2. I didnt know that Binchy had a new book out. I've listened to all of her books on CD (i'm a sucker for any kind of accent). I need to see if this one is available at my library.

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  3. I was disappointed as well. It just wasn't as good as her earlier books.

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  4. Tara Road is probably my favourite of hers, although I was also thrilled with Circle of Friends, Glass Lake, Copper Beech.

    I could not STAND Scarlet Feather, though, and since then she's not been the same for me.

    Not sure I'll jump right on this one - maybe once the library has it. :)

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