Maeve Binchy books are just so cozy, much like Rosamund Pilcher’s. Interesting characters and lives and a good story and everything works out well in the end. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this, her latest novel. The woods of the title are the woods outside a small city which has grown from a quiet village to a bustling and overcrowded with traffic city. To combat this traffic problem a road is proposed, which would cut through the woods, bypassing the heart of the city. The only problem is that the woods contain a shrine to St. Ann, Mary’s mother. The devoutly religious people in this city are divided over the issue of whether or not the road should be allowed. Everyone at some point has prayed to St. Ann at the shrine for a cure, help finding a husband, a child, etc. This issue merely provides the framework for this book, which is comprised of chapters in which various residents of Rossmore tell their own life stories. Many of the lives are interconnected (neighbor, spouse, lover, parent, sibling, etc.), so you really do get to hear two sides of a story. What is most interesting about all these little stories is that many of the characters are simply not nice people. Some are deeply flawed, and some are downright shocking: notably, the woman who stole a baby from a pram 25 years ago and the woman who arranged to have her ex-boyfriend’s new lover killed. Spoiler: here is one chapters in a nutshell:
A woman, Becca, falls in love with a man named Franklin. He moves in with her and her mother. Everyone is happy for 4 months. Then he tells her he’s taken up with another woman, a 19 year old named Janice. Becca tells him that’s fine and he should keep living there and pretends she’s fine with it. Meanwhile she decides the only way to win back Franklin is to kill Janice. How? Well, she is friends with a taxi driver, Kevin. One day Kev tells her he has inoperable cancer and only 2 months left to live and is going to kill himself by driving very quickly into a wall. She tells him that she has a friend who is also dying and wants to go the same way and perhaps he’d take her too? She suggests he drive the cab so that it looks more like an accident so his mum will still get the life insurance policy. So she befriends Janice so that one day she can say, oh here’s a taxi for you. She tells Kevin that Janice has asked her to arrange everything because she’s too overwrought to do it herself. So one day Kevin picks up Janice, says goodbye to Becca, and drives them both into a brick wall, killing both of them. Alas for Becca, Kevin was apparetnly in love with her and left his life insurance policy to her. Which has made the police suspsicious, given her connection to the others. Who thinks that is a good plan?? Clearly Becca is cuckoo. This story struck me as so wild and wacky for an author I consider so gentle and sweet. And because it was just a chapter and not an entire novel, and told her her gentle matter-of-fact way, it was really intriguing.
Consequences of these actions and how individuals’ stories are woven together made this a wonderful read. The ending was a little optimistic and too easy, but I think the book is really not so much about Whitethorn Woods as it is about the fascinating residents of Rossmore. My favorite character may have been Fabian, the fabulous hairdresser, who was in fact named George, but called “Bruiser” until he found success as a hairstylist.