[I guess this post includes some quasi-spoilers, so if you’re about to read The Whitethorn Woods, be warned.]
In an early chapter of Maeve Binchy’s The Whitethorn Woods, a 60-something Dubliner named Vera decides to sign up for what the brochure bills as a “singles’ holiday.” She figures that, being single, she should fit right in, but of course it turns out that her fellow passengers on the trip to Italy are 20somethings geared up for a week of mojito-stained hookup madness. She adapts well, learning their strange names (Todd, Glen, Sharon–it seems that young Irish swingers have names that to American ears call up images of vans with fur-lined interiors blasting “Afternoon Delight” from the 8-track) and becoming a sort of wise aunt, plus (of course meeting a nice older gent herself.
As surprised as Vera is, it is nothing compared to the shock that this story would give a reader from the 1970s. It’s hard to know what would seem strangest, that young people would be running off to have sex with no thought of eternal hellfir or social ostracism (and not just young people, for Vera gets some in the end too)…or the idea that working-class Dubliners can afford to fly to Italy on vacation. The puritanical agrarian Celtic paradise imagined by De Valera has been changed, changed utterly.
Well, maybe not utterly. Binchy’s book certainly is full of things that will resonate for anyone who has been reading about modern Ireland: immigrants from Eastern Europe (the first people in maybe 2000 to come to Ireland without weapons), priests coming to terms with the fact that they’re no longer expected to tell everyone in minute detail how to live their lives, politicians getting rich on kickbacks from construction projects…and so on.
Still, the book’s fulcrum is a shrine to St. Ann, where supplicants ask for their heart’s desire, so the characters are not exactly a bunch of atheist radicals. Mostly the petitioners are lookign for love of the serious settle-down variety; even Glen and Sharon are really just doing the Club Med thing to find a wife/husband. So this is mostly a version of ‘modern’ that my mother could have approved of…for example, though the existence of gay people is acknowledged–something that by itself would have gotten the book banned in De Valera’s Ireland–none of those seeking love are gay. Fabian the hairdresser is, we might say, openly straight, constantly telling girls that he isn’t into guys, really. You will certainly not find anything here like the story in Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons where a young man deals with his mother’s death by going to an all-night rave, downing a bunch of pills, and having sex on the beach with one of his male buddies (it’s an oddly heartwarming story, don’t mind my flip tone).
After the first few episodes, the stories start to get that not-so-fresh feeling, and it feels as though Binchy is laboring to tidy everything up. I am reminded of a child I once knew whose favorite game was “rowing up.” When Jessica was 3 or 4 years old, my sister A., who was babysitting her, would create a great pile of everybody’s shoes in the basement (well, sometimes this pile just happened to be there already) and Jessica, with the intense earnestness of small children, would match them and line them up in a neat formation. Sometimes in The Whitethorn Woods I sense that the desire to row everybody up has taken over from the desire to tell a human story, and characters may end up pursuing a partner just because he isn’t actually smelly despite being called Skunk, or because she’s a good accountant (I would be the last man to disparage the charms of accountants, but one hopes for a little more than a facility with spreadsheets). The worst case involves the resolution of the controversy over a plan to build a new motorway through St. Ann’s shrine. Neddy Nolan is, I think, intended to be our favorite character, but his Forrest Gump holy-fool shtick gets old (at least for me), and in the end Binchy, in order to create suspense, makes him act like a paranoid freak, mortgaging his father’s farm to take out a huge loan in order to fund his own secret development plan. He somehow does this without telling his wife or his father, or even telling the banker what the loan is for. Maybe this is somehow legal in Ireland, but it sure as hell isn’t ethical in any country. When his wife finds out what he’s done, she is so relieved that he’s not cheating on her that she doesn’t even get mad at him.
So it all pretty much falls apart at the end. Besides the Neddy Nolan shenanigans, one of the last chapters tells the story of a deaf girl who applies to a special school and is given a horrifying public “intelligence test”–I hope that this episode reflects Binchy’s ignorance rather than the standards of the Irish educational system. My favorite question is the one where the child, supposedly a math whiz, is given a picture of a triangle and identifies it as a piece of cheese, which miraculously turns out to be the right answer…well, the Irish do love their dairy products.
PS: A good book about recent Irish history is RF Foster’s Luck and the Irish, where you can learn about the nefarious doings of Charlie Haughey, the heroism of Mary Robinson, and some of the scandals that helped cut the Church down to size.