The discussion opened with everyone agreeing that this book was definitely the easiest read so far; a comfort read with ends coming neatly together at the end.
For some members of the group, this was their first introduction to Binchy, whilst others were revisiting a favourite comfort read author. This formed one of the main threads of the conversation. The two other main themes, which are linked to this one, were the structure of this novel (and therefore the notion of time), and the characters.
A 'typical' Binchy novel sees a group of disparate people come together, whether to learn something, eat somewhere, follow a dream or go on a trip. This group transforms into a community as the book progresses, and their back stories are revealed. There are usually two or three narrators who pass the narrative baton amongst themselves. This novel is similar in theme – a bunch of people show up at a guest house in rural Ireland – but differs from Binchy's other novels structurally – it was agreed that it felt like a novel in short stories, and therefore a bit more disjointed than the group would have liked. (Perhaps it would work better as a radio novel?) However, this novel was appealing enough that readers new to Binchy were interested in going in search of her earlier work.
Since each character has a single chapter in which the reader gets acquainted with them, and each backstory goes back a different number of years into the character's past, two things result. The reader is expected to make multiple adjustments to their comprehension of the elapsing of time which, for some of the group, added to the sense of disjunction (and distance from the characters). As a corollary, it also resulted in the present being unduly foreshortened, and led to a related discussion as to whether the novel was finished, or at least had received its final edit before the author's demise.
It was generally agreed that there was a sense that a 'set-piece scene', in which all the characters came together at the forefront of the story, as opposed to in the background of each others' stories, was missing. Since there was often a breathtaking amount of information (sometimes spanning an entire lifetime, as in Chicky's story) to be absorbed, the group agreed that perhaps a unifying character (Chicky herself?), and/or fewer characters might have helped readers make more of an emotional connection with them. However, since the present in which the characters interact is merely a week, perhaps their two-dimensional nature is a comment on the superficiality of the knowledge about other people that can be acquired in that short a space of time.
Notes on the characters:
Gloria: a universal favourite even if she added a bit too much whimsy for some of the group.
Chicky: a strong character who most of the group wouldn't have minded knowing more about. Her strength of character and the nature of her dreams also struck a chord.
Miss Queenie: the adorable lynchpin of Chicky's transformation who is removed from the story too soon.
Irene: likeable, but less believable in her uncomplaining servitude to the book's one 'villain', the Miss Havisham-like Miss Howe. Her husband, who has a cameo in this novel, is the protagonist of a different Binchy novel.
Rigger: his transformation is likeable if not entirely convincing.
Henry and Nicola: the most interesting thing about their backstory is ironically the story of someone else, a 'patient' who they cannot save from tragedy. In the present, they become community heroes, making their decision to stay believable.
Orla: a patchwork of traits from feisty characters developed at full length in her other novels. One of the characters who suffers most from not being developed enough.
Corry: not convincing. The connection between Orla and Corry: promising but a dead end.
Freda: at her most beguiling as a dedicated enthusiastic librarian, leeched of her vibrancy by a cliched situation, and her 'makeover' as resident psychic.
Miss Daly: considered the most interesting character, and her 'fate' was considered unduly harsh and unnecessarily punitive.
Anders: 'nice enough'. (In less gracious words: yawn. He seemed to be present in the novel to make some kind of thesis about dysfunctional families which goes nowhere.)
The Walls: initially unsympathetic, although Ann is somewhat redeemed by her later actions. (Their lottery-winning experience was reflected by the experiences of one of the group!)
Next up: a novel that couldn't be more different if it tried! Pat Barker's Toby's Room, the second in her more recent First World War series (which opens with Life Class).