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BOOK REVIEW

In divided Irish village, lives intersect with joy and sorrow

Maeve Binchy masterfully interweaves her stories. Maeve Binchy masterfully interweaves her stories. (Liam White)

The tiny town of Rossmore, in Ireland, offers picturesque shops, the beautiful Whitethorn Woods, and St. Ann's Well -- a holy shrine that for generations has drawn pilgrims from all over the world, seeking answered prayers for romance, jobs, health, and children.

A new highway bypass would cut right through Whitethorn Woods, forcing the destruction of St. Ann's Well. The proposed road is dividing the town between those who want to minimize traffic and those who want to save the well.

Father Brian Flynn , Rossmore's overworked parish priest and a keen observer of humanity, has mixed feelings about St. Ann's shrine and the potential roadwork. He considers the notes and flowers left near the statue of St. Ann to be close to idolatry, and wishes the Vatican didn't remain "unhelpfully silent about the well." And yet, when he walks in the woods near the shrine, he can't help but feel a little more at peace.

Father Flynn has wisely decided to side with neither faction on the matter of the road, and keeps his own counsel on the matter of St. Ann's Well. It's hard to know what to think, or to believe.

Ever since her early story collections, and her first novel, "Light a Penny Candle," Maeve Binchy has proved to be an author of exceptional grace. Her Catholic heritage and strong moral sensibility can make her seem a literary Irish counterpart to Mary Gordon, the American author whose writing shares these characteristics, as well as a wickedly subtle sense of humor and a great deal of kindness.

"Whitethorn Woods" is constructed as a series of connected stories. Initially, these seem as simple as the inhabitants of Rossmore, who frequently economize on finances and emotions. A collection of connected stories presents unique challenges. Not only must there be an overall arc, but each tale requires its own beginning, middle, and end. Binchy performs this feat with impressive agility. Each story introduces a new character, and also brings in ones you have already met -- all of which propels the overall tale forward. You see each character from different perspectives, underscoring how difficult it is to truly know how we present ourselves to the world.

Some characters address you directly, as if you were an old confidant or were eavesdropping on an internal monologue. It's intimate, a bit unsettling, and ultimately effective.

Binchy presents these quite regular townsfolk with extraordinary dilemmas that might elevate, or diminish, their lives (decisions beyond voting on a new road). As one woman muses about something she did, long ago, to maintain a closeness with her best friend, she notes, "You might have done it differently but I made my choice and was stuck with it."

The people of Rossmore confront heartbreak, sometimes find love at young and very old ages, discover heroes in unexpected places, and deal with sins as deadly as avarice, treachery, and murder.

As with much of Binchy's fiction, there are compellingly drawn women, from all walks of life, who spend considerable energy decoding relationships with husbands and friends. All the characters volunteer unintentionally illuminating details about the state of their marriage, how co-workers perceive them, and how they feel about themselves.

Lives overlap enough to set a fateful tone, but not so much that events seem contrived. Not all the endings are happy; one story involving a baby has an achingly sad conclusion. "Whitethorn Woods" feels like real life, with a bit of a magic touch.

You may smile at the end of this book, in the style of 17-year-old Lucky O'Leary, after she has reached an unexpected understanding with her mother: "a complicated smile, built on many layers."

Carol Iaciofano writes the blog Nine Hundred Words, at ninehundredwords.blogspot.com.

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