Sure, and it was sad news when Irish writer Maeve Binchy died last summer at 72. At the time, I went back and reread several of my favorite novels – Light a Penny Candle, Firefly Summer, Circle of Friends — and mourned that there would be no more. Not so fast. Binchy left her readers one last novel, A Week in Winter (Knopf, digital galley), and a grand winter’s tale it is, with a vintage ensemble cast.
What ties these disparate, flawed characters togther is Stoneybridge, a village on Ireland’s west coast. Chicky left home at 19 to go to New York with a young American; years later, she returns with a story of having been widowed but with enough money to turn Miss Queenie’s decaying mansion into a tourist hotel. The naysayers are many, but Chicky enlists the help of bad boy Rigger, and the job of handyman turns out to be the making of him. Chicky’s niece Orla leaves her London job and flash lifestyle to lend her business skills. And so Stone House is ready to welcome its first guests for a week in winter.
As in novels like The Copper Beech and Silver Wedding, Binchy rotates chapters among the characters, filling in back stories as the guests meet up in the cozy lounge with its roaring fire and black-and-white cat. Winnie, a newly engaged nurse, arrives with her fiance’s glamorous mother, reluctant to let go of her son or her youth. A famous American actor checks in under an assumed name, hoping no one will recognize him in this backwater. A pair of married doctors seeks solace after a trauma. A middle-aged couple addicted to entering contests aren’t happy that their holiday is second-prize to a Paris trip. A retired schoolteacher is her own worst enemy, spreading doom and gloom wherever she goes. And then there’s the psychic with a broken heart.
“It’s a funny old world,” one character remarks early on, and it’s just that in Binchy’s books. Her readers know that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, that life is both sunshine and shadows. Still, things have a way of working out, although not necessarily the way one wished. Ah, Maeve Binchy, we’ll miss you. How bittersweet it is.