When Maeve Binchy passed away last summer, she’d just completed work on her next manuscript, and her publisher has polished it up and released it. Titled A Week in Winter, it’s a fitting swan song for one of my favorite writers, showing her usual deft touch for storytelling and creating characters you come to understand and care about as they move through life in contemporary Ireland.
A Week in Winter is set primarily in Stoneybridge on the unforgiving western coast of Ireland, although some of the action takes place in Dublin or other areas. Binchy tends to employ one of two narrative structures to her novels; the one she uses here is typical when she’s focusing on a place that all the characters have in common—in this case, that place is Stone House, a run-down old house in Stoneybridge that the central character, Chicky Starr, buys from its elderly owner and begins to convert into a B&B. Each subsequent chapter after we are introduced to Stoneybridge and Chicky focuses on a single character and that character’s relationship to Stone House.
Stoneybridge is one of those places that seems ordinary: a small town on the western coast, windswept, seemingly existing despite itself. There are small farms, a pub or two, a few big houses, a knitting factory. What there isn’t: a lot of opportunity for young people, who typically take off for Dublin or England as soon as they can escape. Such was the case with Chicky, who meets Walter Starr by chance while she’s working at the knitting factory and ends up going to New York with him despite the pleas from her parents and the advice of the townspeople. Naturally Walter leaves her eventually, but not before she’s written countless letters home describing a fictitious lifestyle and marriage. He also leaves her with little money. Chicky moves into a boarding house in exchange for working for the owner and learns a great deal—and saves enough money—to eventually go home. There she buys Stone House from Miss Queenie, giving her a life tenancy, and begins the long conversion process of restoring the house to its former glamour and making it into a B&B.
After Chicky’s story is told, Binchy moves on to others whose lives are touched by the house: her niece Orla, who is tired of life in London and refuses to settle into a loveless marriage; Rigger, the son of Chicky’s childhood friend, who needs a place to live and work after getting in trouble with the law; and eventually, the individual stories of those who book in for the opening week—one week in Winter—of Stone House. Each person has a chapter devoted to their story, and each chapter ties back to Stone House, to Chicky or Rigger or Orla. Together, they make up the narrative of a place and the people who are touched by it.
All of this is done with Binchy’s usual charm, wit, and deprecating, wry glances at humanity. Some of the characters’ stories will be familiar, such as Winnie’s—she intends to take her current boyfriend to Stone House for a holiday, only to be landed with his overbearing, doting mother instead when he has a conflict—or Anders, whose cold, emotionless father expects him to run his accounting business when all he really wants to do is be a musician. Of all the guests, no one’s story, however, is as interesting as Miss Howe’s.
Miss Howe is a headmistress on the brink of retirement who is given a holiday at Stone House as a parting gift from her staff. An intensely private person, Miss Howe knows little about her colleagues and they know even less about her personal life. What they do know is that she is rigid and censorious, and she’s nicknamed Her Own Worst Enemy, a name that proves to be completely justified as her story unfolds. Miss Howe is not a nice person, or even an admirable one, and it’s extremely difficult to feel any sympathy for her bitter loneliness since she’s one of those people who need to tear others down in order to boost their own self-worth. Binchy’s novels rarely contain characters with no redeeming qualities or at least a history that allows the reader to feel some sympathy. Miss Howe is a notable exception to this standard, and the novel is stronger for her inclusion.
This isn’t Binchy’s best work—I’d call it “above average”. But even above average Binchy will warm you up on a chilly day and possibly restore your faith in people. And since that’s what I look for when I pick up one of her books, I was more than satisfied with this one.