When I started reading this book, I had no idea it contained a quartet of unrelated short stories. I would have known if I had read the first part of the back cover text, but as it started with ‘From the bestselling author of’, I skipped that bit. In fact, I was well into the second story before I realised it was never going to have any connection with the first. The only connection is that they are all set in Dublin.
The main protagonists in all four of the stories are starting afresh in one way or another. The demon drink or drunkenness is also mentioned in every story, with the final one being about a recovering alcoholic. Another odd link between two of the stories is that there are characters who use their master bedroom for another purpose, either an office or an artist’s studio. I wonder if that was Maeve Binchy’s own dream. She definitely made use of her own experience as she moved to a Dublin bedsit in 1971.
Dinner in Donnybrook
A woman who has been wronged and retreated into depression finally takes control and uses her intelligence to get what she wants, rediscovering her enjoyment of life in the process, much to the confusion of all around, who are used to the dowdy, passive, middle-aged version.
Carmel is uncharacteristically arranging a dinner party on October 8th, the day of the opening of Ruth O’Donnell’s exhibition and has invited Ruth. The problem is, Ruth has been having an affair with Carmel’s husband Dermot, though they are having a two-week trial separation. The affair seems to be general knowledge, but nobody wants to tell Carmel. Everyone is tiptoeing around her because she has had some unspecified mental health issues: depression or a nervous breakdown.
Dermot “laughed wryly to himself. It was most people’s idea of a married man’s dream: an unquestioning wife and an unquestioning mistress. But it was a bad dream, he could write a book on what a bad dream it was. You were happy in neither place, you were guilty in both places. The very fact that nobody was making any move made it all the more insoluble. If Carmel had threatened and pleaded, perhaps, if Ruth had issued ultimatums, perhaps. Perhaps it might have been better. But nothing ever happened. Until now. Until Ruth had been invited to dinner.”
Dermot thinks he is keeping both women happy, but really he’s manipulating both of them. Ruth, on the other hand, feels guilty that she is cheating, that she is not showing solidarity as a woman.
Not only does nobody else know for sure if Carmel knows, but we don’t either for a long time. Carmel is the only one who doesn’t seem worried about what’s going to happen. She has everything planned out, everything under control, as we soon find out when she talks to her old friend Joe, who has returned from London to help her carry out her plan. The fact that he is gay plays a pivotal role in the backstory of how Carmel resolves the problem of her husband’s mistress.
This story is classic Binchy, with conversations that feel real, sharing with the reader the inner thoughts and doubts of all the characters. Sadly, she left the story open-ended, without describing what happened after the dinner party so carefully arranged, but in retrospect, that was the right decision as I suspect it would have been a perfectly civilised affair, thanks to Carmel’s cunning plan.
Flat in Ringsend
Jo, a girl just at moved to Dublin from ‘up country’ finds herself a flat with two other girls, but is upset to find they will not provide the friendship and social life she enjoyed at home. She regrets moving out of the hostel run by nuns where she first stayed; then she could go to the cinema with the other girls or play card games or talk. Now she sits alone in her room or feels out of place when she bumps into the other two girls in the shared kitchen. Binchy has a good feel for the loneliness and sense of dislocation when you first move and know nobody, especially in a big city. Jo, however, is a true innocent abroad and is too timid for her own good. Working at the post office, she imagines she will get to know the customers, but
“She had never expected the miles and miles of streets where nobody knew anyone, the endless bus journeys, the having to get up two hours before she was meant to be at work in case she got lost or the bus was cancelled.”
It reminds me of how I felt the first Saturday at university when everyone else had gone out to the Freshers’ disco and I was left alone. I soon decided that, much as discos ‘weren’t my thing’, I would join them. I was wrong about the disco; I loved it and… that was the night I met my husband! Jo also realises that she has to be proactive, so goes to a pub where a well-known band, the Great Gaels – fictional, I assume – is playing. But then two men start buying her drinks and she is too naive to deal with the situation. This could turn very, very bad…
Decision in Belfield
The story begins with Pat, a university student who has fallen pregnant and is feeling desperate in an Ireland where having a child out of wedlock is a scandal and abortion is illegal. “She had been reading the Problem Pages for years. One or two of them always said things about having done grievous wrong in the eyes of God and now the only thing to do was to Make Restitution. Most of them said that your parents would be very understanding. […] Not in Pat’s home. There would be no support, no understanding. […] She knew that Mum and Dad would not be a bundle of support and two big rocks of strength. Because they hadn’t been any of that five years ago when her elder sister Cathy had been pregnant. There was no reason why their attitude should have changed as time went by.”
The majority of the story is about what happened after Cathy went off to England after breaking with the family. Pat, still a young teenager at the time, desperately tried to find out what had actually happened; had she had an abortion or given the baby up for adoption? Her parents were bitter, she couldn’t ask her eldest sister who was a nun in Australia and the father of the child seemed oblivious. Gradually she found out more and, by talking to her parents, discovered their side of the story, which was more nuanced than we are at first led to believe.“People were really behaving more and more peculiarly, Pat decided. The older they got the vaguer they became. […] once people got any way settled they seemed to lose touch with reality and built themselves a comfortable little world like a Wendy House entirely of their own creation.”
Now, Pat is pregnant herself and it’s time for her to take control. There’s a tiny twist in the tail about how she got pregnant and the slightest doubt about what she’s going to do about it, but the point of the story is more about families assuming things about each other and not talking about their feelings.
Murmurs in Montrose
Gerry, a notorious drunk, formerly a successful advertising photographer, is about to leave the nursing home where he has spent the last six weeks ‘taking the cure’. His wife and children are apprehensive, as is the parish priest, who has always supported the family when he came home drunk. Only his mother thinks the drinking was due to stress; she is the only one who doesn’t understand that he needs to stay away from alcohol. We’re privy to everyone’s feelings about his return. It’s a huge strain on everybody. Can his wife Emma support them all until he manages to find some commissions? Will he stay dry? How will they all adjust?
This was the least successful of the four stories, although it does reveal the stresses and strains put on a family in this situation and the feeling of stepping on egg shells. We’re left in limbo, knowing it will probably go spectacularly wrong. It’s all rather unsettling and feels an odd way to leave a book. It’s almost as if it’s a challenge to write your own ending. I dare say Binchy covered the same ground in one of her novels, but the ones I have read, I read so long ago that I can’t be sure. In any case, it has reminded me how well she wrote, so I may return to one of her doorstopper novels in the future.
An excellent start to Novellas in November, even though it was really Not a Novellas in November!