By Maeve Binchy
Knopf, $26.95, 400 pages
Get this. Emily Lynch goes on her first-ever trip to Dublin to meet her uncle and aunt and cousin Noel. Arriving on the overnight flight from New York, she makes her way to their house, drops off her bags, goes out to the market, comes back with food and cooks dinner for them. By chance, her uncle is laid off from his job that day. Emily quickly moves in to set him up with a second career as a dog walker. She also gets her aunt to drop down to part-time work so she can raise funds for a statue of St. Jarlath.
A thrift shop will be a good money raiser, Emily thinks, and within a few days, she has found premises, and the shop is up and running. She gets her alcoholic young cousin Noel to go to night school and to Alcoholics Anonymous. So, within days of her arrival, all the Lynches, including Emily herself, are moving along new paths.
None of this is remotely credible as an account of how an elderly couple and their 20-something son would behave with a relation they have never seen before. Yet these achievements pale compared to the way Emily steps right in to arrange matters when Noel learns that Stella, a one-night-stand acquaintance, is dying of cancer and wants him to raise their daughter.
The list of credibility-straining events could go on. Not least is the energetic way Stella talks and smokes while supposedly knowing that she will die when her daughter is delivered. This mind-boggling lack of affect could be worth analysis, but author Maeve Binchy passes cheerfully along to other sets of characters, some of them from her earlier novels. Eventually they all connect, and many of them help mind baby Frankie. Thus, instead of a plot, “Minding Frankie” has merely a tissue of events.
Given this patchwork confection, the characters’ motivations are often mysterious or justified by the weakest of explanations, as is the case with Noel’s alcoholism. And where does Emily get her ability to arrange everything in ultraquick time? What, really, is she like? As the novel progresses, she fades from view, perhaps simply because her shaker-and-mover function has been performed. None of this seems to matter to Ms. Binchy, nor to her multitude of readers. Her 16 novels have been extraordinarily popular. “Minding Frankie” has a first American hardback printing of 145,000 copies and is a Book of the Month Club selection.
These facts should give pause to anyone interested in the literary world. The novel is alive and well, as it has been for almost four centuries. But the novels whose bright covers lure hundreds of thousands of bedtime readers, airline travelers and beach-goers are rarely those that critics and reviewers applaud and are never the ones that win the prestigious prizes. But if books like “Minding Frankie” are out of the game for literary accolades, why are they such heavy hitters with the public?
“Minding Frankie” certainly does not charm readers with evocative descriptions or luscious language. No reader will learn what Dublin looks or feels like from this novel - even though the scene scarcely moves out of the city and Ms. Binchy uses only the commonest of adjectives. What makes her novels work so well is that she brings the talents of an impresario to a large cast of characters and keeps them constantly in motion.
The central tale in “Minding Frankie” is about how Noel gets a grip on his alcoholism and learns to take care of motherless Frankie. All the neighbors help. So readers get the story of Lizzie and Mattie, who baby-sit, and Fiona and Declan, whose baby often keeps Frankie company in the thrift shop where Declan’s mother watches them. Then there’s Lisa, who shares the apartment Emily finds for Noel. Seems they might become a couple, but Lisa is already head over heels with Anton, a charming but philandering chef.
Everybody else can see he’s stringing her along, so romantic disaster looms through much of the book. Then there’s social worker Moira Tierney, superefficient but lacking in sympathy and ever hoping to catch Noel drinking so she can place Frankie in foster care. Naturally, everyone dislikes her.
With so many characters in play, a lot of things happen, many of them the stuff of everyday life. A beloved neighbor is diagnosed with metastasized cancer. Declan is offered an enviable job and has to decide whether to take it or stay in the community where he grew up. Moira realizes she is friendless and tries to work out how to change.
As much as the motivation is hard to credit and changes occur unrealistically fast, the issues the characters confront are real, and they are absorbing without being complicated. Here is the heart of the matter. The emptiness left by lack of complex characterization and evocation gives readers room to move in with conjectures and solutions. They are aided by Ms. Binchy’s control of her players. As one of their stories becomes humdrum, she switches the limelight to another, making sure that shadowed lives, such as Moira’s and Stella’s, engage attention but never seriously dim the optimistic brightness of her tale.
“Minding Frankie” suggests that everyone’s life is better when individuals, communities and governments work together to care for those in trouble. That is a very warming message to readers, and Maeve Binchy’s sales figures suggest it’s clearly one they want to hear.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.