Since we’ve been experiencing an unusual bout of wintery weather, it seemed like a good time for me to pull this book off the shelf. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve been putting off reading it. Maeve Binchy is the author of one of my all-time favorite books (Circle of Friends) and several others that I’ve really enjoyed. Since this is the last book she wrote before she died in 2012, I felt like I wanted to save it.
This book is more of a collection of short stories than a novel. Every chapter is told from the perspective of a different character. The very first chapter is about Chicky Starr, a girl who grew up in a small Irish town called Stoneybridge. She spent her whole childhood wanting to get out of Stoneybridge and see the world, but when she finally has her chance, she realizes that she may have taken her home for granted. Although she lives for nearly 30 years in America, she returns to Stoneybridge for a week every winter to visit her family. It is her week to rest and recharge. Since Chicky is a hard worker and spends almost no money on herself, she has a considerable amount of savings by the time she’s in her forties. When she decides it’s time to make a change in her life, she returns to Stoneybridge permanently and buys a crumbling Edwardian mansion called Stone House from an eccentric old lady called Queenie. Chicky plans to restore the mansion and run it as a bed-and-breakfast. Chicky’s story is the glue that holds the book together, because every chapter following hers is narrated by someone who either works for Chicky at Stone House or comes to stay for the opening week.
The first few chapters are told from the perspective of Rigger, a boy whose mother was Chicky’s friend years ago, and Chicky’s niece Orla. Rigger’s mother sends him to Stone House as a last-ditch effort to keep him out of jail. He’s been in and out of trouble since he was ten, and after a few years at a reform school seem to make no difference, Rigger’s mother decides that Stone House is his final opportunity to turn his life around. Then Orla arrives to work for Chicky as a business manager and cook. Between them, Chicky, Rigger, Orla, and Queenie transform Stone House into a functional, beautiful guest house.
I thought the most interesting chapters were those told from the perspective of the first guests. There is an American movie star who comes to escape the spotlight for a bit. There is a couple, both doctors, who want a break from the tragedy they witness so regularly. A woman named Winnie books the trip hoping for a romantic week with her boyfriend, but through an unfortunate mix-up, winds up traveling with her boyfriend’s unpleasant mother instead. One couple receives their week at Stone House for free as a runner-up prize in a contest, and they are disappointed to be missing the grand prize week in Paris. The guests are an odd mix of people, but each has an interesting backstory.
I absolutely love Maeve Binchy’s writing. It’s heartfelt and hopeful but still realistic. Even though the stories that she tells most often have happy endings, she acknowledges that life isn’t perfect. Bad things do happen. People make poor choices, relationships don’t work out, and one guest even leaves Stone House early because she can’t relax and unwind enough to enjoy a simple week of vacation. But for the most part, this is a book about the way that things tend to work out for the best, and it is about the way that people’s lives overlap and impact others even if they are only staying at the same B&B for a week.