Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quentins, by Maeve Binchy

I avoided Maeve Binchy's work for years because I had the impression that it is heart-warming fiction with happy endings and simple stories. And so it is, judging by this book. But I have to admit I liked it more than I expected.

Binchy seems related, to an extent, to her Scottish cousin (not literal cousin) Alexander McCall Smith. Both celebrate the community developed by persons together in a town, together in a pub or restaurant, or just together in a neighborhood. Relationships develop among people who meet up in various ways, and always who live in the same city. In the case of McCall Smith, the city is Edinburgh (except for the African stories, of course). For Binchy, it is Dublin. At least in this book.

The individual stories of many persons are told in relation to a restaurant called Quentins, including the story of Quentin himself. Careers are set in motion, people get married, others meet or have life-changing experiences. A common thread is the story of Ella, an intelligent but naive young woman who falls for a married financier who later disappears, apparently to Spain, apparently to escape prosecution. Her own story lies on the periphery of the restaurant, which she and her lover visited often. The other stories get told as possible parts of a film, a documentary, that Ella has agreed to assist in making, about how the restaurant represents the positive changes in Dublin over several years.

It was obvious from the start that everything would work out in the end, with life lessons learned, and some people a bit wiser while others are justly made to pay for their crimes. The stories are simply told and generally fun to read, but at times I tired of them. So many characters, so many little incidents, not all of them all that interesting. Good light reading for that airplane trip or time spent in the hospital.

Leaving Home, by Anita Brookner

A young woman leaves home and grows up. I think one might summarize the book this way, but it really isn't a "coming of age" book in the usual sense.

Emma Roberts, 26, heads from her home in England to France to complete her dissertation on formal gardens. Living in small tight quarters, she works daily in the library, lives almost monastically. At the library, though, she meets Francoise, a young French woman whose life is almost the opposite of Emma's. Emma listens to her friend's tales of one-night stands and her stories of her weekends at home with her mother. After some time, Francoise invites Emma to join her at her home one weekend and Emma accepts.

The house is large and stately, a bit run-down but still beautiful. Emma is entranced by it. She is also deeply affected by her encounters with Francoise's mother, who, while reserved and hardly friendly, seems to like her.

In the months to come Emma visits the house a few more times, and also visits her own mother back in England. She also starts to take up a small friendship with a young man, Michael, who lives in the same hotel. The two go on quiet walks and occasionally have coffee. They share a desire for distance, a companionable distance. Emma is happy with the lack of expectations of her.

The student life in France is abruptly interrupted when Emma receives bad news about her mother, and relationships slip a little. She reluctantly accepts invitations to visit Francoise's house again, and ultimately learns more about her friend than perhaps she wants.

There is growing up going on here, but it's clear that in some ways Emma has been grown for a while. She is so introspective that she almost lives doubly - in real life and in her mind. The book is small but the writing is "literary" - "lyrical". Simple actions are written in expansive prose that sometimes almost obscures what actually happened. At times I found the style irritating. As a rule, I like writing to be more straightforward, direct.

IT's a curious book. I didn't love Emma. Or her friends, particularly. Yet I found it interesting enough and ultimately it left me thinking, which is a good thing.