Maeve Binchy’s Whitethorn Woods slips between novel and short story, but the effect is charming. Binchy’s books are a perfect complement to a quiet afternoon with shortbread and tea. Reading her work feels like having a good chat with your best friend over the kitchen table. This is a different experience from her earlier work, and is not as all-consuming as some of her wonderfully long and involved novels, like Tara Road or Scarlett Feather, but this is a great set of interwoven stories about interesting characters.
The stories in Whitethorn Woods revolve around the upcoming destruction of a sacred well in a beautiful section of woods near the town of Rossmore. Rossmore is growing, and the town needs a road, but the new road will go through the woods, destroying their beauty and the well of St. Anne. Binchy chats with you through her pages about all of the different sorts of people who need St. Anne’s or who even know about St. Anne’s. Some of the characters visit the well; some of the characters disparage the well, but it provides a nice center circle for the wheel spokes of her story. Father Brian Flynn is a young priest struggling with extinction as people move away from the Church. Frustratingly, though, they will miss Church on Sunday, but will not miss a chat with St. Anne at her well. Neddy Nolan is called “Simple Neddy”, but he’s not as simple as he appears. His land will be paved over for the new road. Lilly Ryan lost her baby twenty years ago. She was stolen from her pram when Lilly was inside the grocery. All of these characters leap off the page, and, as I always do after I finish one of her books, I wonder what they go on to do.
Binchy clearly believes that character drives plot, and her characters are given the lead to speak for themselves. Unlike some of her earlier works, Whitethorn Woods takes place in modern Ireland, and the situation of the plodding Irish village faced with the prospect of modernization is something that Ireland, itself, has dealt with, very successfully, over the past years. Binchy includes hints about modern Ireland that are not present in her earlier work. Rather than merely crafting tales about characters dealing with the Church or horrible family members, love and the pursuit of careers, which fill much of her other work, this collection talks about the tension of England versus Ireland, though subtly, the new prosperity in Ireland and how that affects community, and women who choose to behave in ways formerly condemned by the Church. It is a snapshot of Ireland as it is now, carefully sifting through its tradition and moving slowly toward a modern, prosperous nation that may become the envy of Europe.