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Book Review : The Pluck of the Irish in Perspective

October 07, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy (Delacorte: $19.95; 601 pages)

That long-postponed sabbatical abroad is as close as the neighborhood bookstore and affordable as lunch. Set in the small Irish village of Mountfern in the early 1960s, "Firefly Summer" is a long, leisurely novel, shaped by three major events and crammed with the hundreds of minor incidents that make hyper-realistic fiction.

At first, exactly as if you'd leased a cottage for the season, you'll be merely a spectator, getting acclimated, buying sundries at the widow Quinn's shabby shop, refreshing yourself with a pint at Ryan's licensed premises; walking back to your lodgings along the river where the village children splash in the water and their older brothers and sisters flirt on the bridge in the long twilight.

Because you'll need the post office and a car almost at once, you'll meet Sheila Whelan, the brisk and sensible postmistress, and Jack Coyne, who runs the only garage and tends to take advantage of trusting strangers. Since Mountfern has but one main street, you're bound to run into Father Hogan, the young lawyer Fergus Slattery, the Protestant vicar, and Dr. White before two days have gone by. It won't take long to find Conway's grocery or the dairy, and the Grange, until now Mountfern's only inn, is unmistakable.

Main Topic of Conversation

Sooner or later, someone will hint that the proprietress of the Rosemarie beauty salon is said to supplement her income accommodating gentlemen clients with something other than a shampoo and set, but the main topic of conversation for all will be the arrival of Patrick O'Neill, the handsome and prosperous American restaurant owner who has bought the ruined manor house Fernscourt with the idea of turning it into an elegant country hotel.

Burned down during the troubles of the 1920s and left desolate ever since, Fernscourt has been a magnet for the village children, especially the young Ryans, who think of the place as their private domain. Now that O'Neill is taking it over with his grandiose scheme for a luxury resort, the children are not only in peril of losing their playground, but Kate and John Ryan of losing their livelihood, for who would patronize their simple pub when across the way there's something as grand as the refurbished manor? What does anyone know of this O'Neill anyway, save that he's a widower with two well-mannered children; Grace, barely a teen-ager but already a beauty, and her brother Kerry, whose dazzling smile and blond good looks are bound to break hearts as far away as Dublin?

O'Neill is a self-made man, whose father fled to America at the turn of the century from Mountfern itself, and isn't he back to lord it over them all, bringing with him a lady said to be his designer but clearly far more than that to anyone with any experience of the world at all? Still, O'Neill is generally welcomed, not only because the project is bound to bring prosperity to the town, but also because he turns out to be a generous and considerate employer, not nearly as brash or impatient as expected. And Rachel Fine, his decorator and whatever else, is as warm and friendly a soul as you'll find anywhere, despite being neither Irish nor Catholic, but something else altogether.

Sweetness and Light

So everything appears to be sweetness and light, as the town and the O'Neills learn to trust and accept one another. Even skeptical Kate Ryan is won over, though she does more than her share of worrying because of the large family and the fact that John is a poet at heart and a publican only by necessity.

Of all the vibrant characters in the novel, Kate Ryan is far and away the most memorable. The victim of a crippling accident that happens on O'Neill's building site, her courage in coming to terms with the tragedy gives the novel much of its emotional power, providing a poignant context for every other happening. There are other tragedies and triumphs in the course of the year, but the complex story of the Ryans and the O'Neills remains at the heart of the book.

Lyrical without ever sliding into dialect, the prose is a continual reminder that you're neither in the fantasy Ireland of "Finian's Rainbow" or the anguished country of the Belfast bombings, but somewhere equidistant from both. Though a disaster more cataclysmic than even Kate's frightful accident ends the book, the finale is curiously satisfactory, just the finish you may have wished for without admitting it even to yourself.

In the time it takes to read "Firefly Summer," you've become a resident of Mountfern, and cannot bear to see it irrevocably changed.

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