by Maeve Binchy
345 pages,
ISBN: 1552783081

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A Gathering at Quentins
by Angela Narth

Summer rumours to the effect that Maeve Binchy was about to retire had her reading public very concerned. Catching everyone by happy surprise, the recent release of Quentins has been at least a temporary relief from the spectre of the end of this Dublin author's wonderful body of work.
It has been said that reading one of Binchy's stories is like coming home. Never was this sentiment more true. Quentins, a name already familiar to Binchy fans, is a novel about a restaurant. But it also captures and ties up neatly the lives of numerous characters from Binchy's previous works. In this author's deft hands, the Dublin restaurant becomes almost as alive as the people whose lives it has affected in one way or another.
The story focuses on Ella Brady, the adored, doted-on only child of an older couple. Readers are quickly drawn into Ella's life as she moves out on her own to begin her career as a teacher. In what seems a very short time, Ella falls in love with Don Richardson, a charming married man who convinces her that his marriage is without substance. Her heart is broken when Don suddenly disappears in the midst of a major financial scandal which has ruined Ella's own father. As is typical of Binchy's female protagonists, Ella Brady is a survivor. A warm, sincere and loving young woman whose misfortune only serves to build her character, Ella soon moves on to better things, stronger and certainly smarter for the experience. She seizes a challenging opportunity to work with local Firefly Films, owned and operated by good friends Nick and Sandy, on a documentary about the restaurant which carries the title name. Before the documentary plan can be presented to the potential funders, Ella must do some research. This is the point at which Quentins begins to transform from typical novel format into a stunningly crafted combination of interwoven vignettes and short stories.
Readers are first given some background about the name Quentins, along with an explanation, for the grammarians in the group, as to why the apostrophe that appeared in its name throughout Tara Road is no longer used.
Throughout this series of vignettes, skillfully blended so that they function as both research material for Ella's documentary and backstory for the reader, Binchy makes passing reference to familiar characters. There is Colm Barry, another restaurateur, and Danny Lynch, the real-estate agent. Both appeared first in Tara Road.
Part II returns temporarily to Ella's tale, then breaks neatly into a series of short stories. The short story section evokes an atmosphere of sitting in a comfortable room from one's childhood, watching familiar people moving to and fro outside the window, while a loved-one recollects incidents from the past of which you were a part. Reminiscent of her 1998 collection of short stories entitled The Return Journey, this section of the current novel allows readers to meet again characters for whom they may have already developed an affection, like Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather from the The Copper Beech, and Nora and Aidan from Evening Class. We reencounter Brenda Brennan, who first appeared in Tara Road. Combining her excellent business sense with a heart as big as all outdoors, Brenda takes over the management of Quentins. With her husband Patrick, she runs what has become the premier restaurant in Dublin, known not only for its culinary delights, but for its loyalty to the ordinary people, the early customers, who helped make it a success. These stories furnish glimpses of people's emotional fragility as well their resilience, their strength in overcoming grief and hardship. Far from being a series of unconnected stories, these brief, stand-alone encounters run along a common threadłthat being Quentins.
Binchy writes what are basically love stories, or more specifically, stories about love. For it is in the loving heart that one finds the essential qualities of her strongest characters. And yet Binchy is not a writer of romance. Instead, she manages to show that the best in people is always residing just below the surface, ready to be triggered by the right circumstances or the right dynamics between individuals. And, apart from Ella's vanished lover, what lovely people they are.
Don Richardson is the exception. Binchy cleverly injects a bit of foreshadowing that renders Richardson almost smarmy. "Separate lives, Ella, either you believe me or you don't," says Don with "an extraordinary smile" when Ella questions his contention that his married life is all show. "Ella, Angel Ella, I'm never going to hurt you or be bad for you in any way," Don whispers into her hair. Just so the lives of Dubliners in love don't appear too simple or predictable, readers are kept waiting until the very end to know whether or not Ella will return to Don, the man she believes to be the one great love of her life. If the delightful characters are not enough, the suspense of not knowing Ella's ultimate choice is sure to keep readers engaged to the last page. Quentins is a totally delightful read, sure to whet a reader's appetite for more of this author's work. If, however, there is any truth to the rumours of Maeve Binchy's pending retirement, I can't imagine a finer way to end a marvelous writing career.

Angela Narth is a Winnipeg author and freelance reviewer.

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