Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: Tara Road

Tara Road
by Maeve Binchy
648 pages (1998)

Fun factor: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Trash factor: ★ ★ ★ ★
Feminist factor: [-★] [minus one star]

Oh, Maeve Binchy. How do you suck me in with these soap operas of modern women who inexplicably have their heads stuck in the 1950s?

I read another Binchy novel, Evening Class, about 15 years ago and remembered it as being sweet and surprisingly poignant. And a few weeks back, that was just what I needed. My brain was tired after having worked through a couple of National Book Award finalists, an award-winning sci-fi novel that was very tough sledding, and a couple other deadly serious books. I was ready for the literary equivalent of mac & cheese, comfort reading I could belly up to and binge on. So I sorted through the thrift-store books I keep hoarded for emergencies and came up with this Binchy book about two women, one in Ireland and one in Connecticut, who decide to swap houses for a few weeks.* Perfect, I thought—a romantic fantasy that won’t make me work too hard.

But it’s impossible to shut off my critical brain. Maybe I’m just 15 years more cynical now, but right away, Tara Road’s sweetness felt contrived. I mean, you know the hard-hearted woman will soften by the end, the smart-mouthed kids will turn into cherubs, at least briefly, and the bad guys will pay for their sleazeball ways. And the subplots are right out of a Peyton Place–era potboiler**—women striving to find husbands and have babies; men who turn out to be unworthy of those women; other women who pursue careers—the “slutty” route, in this book’s universe—and have animal sex with men who are not their own. When the book begins, the main character, Ria, leads a life so rosy that you know she’s about to get smacked down. For the first few chapters, I kept reading just to see how her life would blow apart, which it so obviously was going to do.

Then a strange thing happened: One night I found myself up way, way past my bedtime, turning and turning those pages. The damned thing had hooked me. I’m not sure how it happened, but now I needed to know when the shady businessman’s house of cards would fall in. Would Ria’s friend escape her (stereotypical) battering husband? Would her snarky, saucy friend—the only woman in the book who supports herself financially—find happiness, or would she just steal somebody’s husband? I felt keenly aware of the soap-opera manipulations, but man, that Binchy knew her plotting tricks: She’d introduce a question in the reader’s mind, then introduce another before answering the first, and so on, giving us a little more information than the characters had so we’d think we knew what would happen. Then she’d throw in a curve ball so it didn’t quite happen that way. All this sounds easy to do, but it’s not; keeping that tension up while not frustrating the reader is a fine balance to keep up for a whole book.

My hat’s off to Maeve Binchy. Ultimately, Tara Road did just what I wanted it to do: It entertained me for a couple of weeks. I don’t feel any better for it; all those women living their lives entirely in relation to the men around them doesn’t make me happy inside. But the book is eminently readable. I just feel a little guilty for liking it so much.

* One reason I figured this would be a lightweight read was because I thought it was the basis for the Kate Winslet/Cameron Diaz movie The Holiday. But it isn’t, really; the basic premise of the house-swapping is the same, but the two stories are very different. Sadly, Jude Law never shows up drunk on the doorstep in Dublin.

** Twice while reading this book, I checked the copyright page to see if it was actually written in the 1950s. I just could not believe it was a modern novel. Had I missed something? Was this a re-issue of a really old book? Nope—1998. Maybe Dublin was just way behind the times. Or Binchy was. Or the whole genre.

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