What is it with Anglo-Saxon writers and the Mediterranean? For many of them, from E.M. Forster to Elizabeth Bowen, from Elizabeth von Arnim to Henry James (an honorary Brit) and now Irish author Maeve Binchy, the Mediterranean can't be a normal spot where one goes "on holiday," and simply comes back with a tan. Something cataclysmic and life-changing must happen because the folks in Greece or Italy are so much closer to nature, and thus to their emotions. Their job is to teach those pale and buttoned-up folks how to loosen up. Fortunately, many of these tales and authors redeem themselves by being quite good, and Binchy's Nights of Rain and Stars is no exception.

The story concerns four tourists who meet in a Greek village, drawn to a taverna by the sight of a pleasure boat burning in the bay. All four are going through crises partially caused by their inability to, as Forster says, "connect." Elsa, a German TV reporter, is running away from the love of her life, whose neglect of his daughter reminds her too much of her own father's abandonment. Fiona, an Irish nurse, is running away from reality with her utter lout of a boyfriend. Thomas, who's from laid-back California, is running away from his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, and the fear of losing his young son. David is escaping his demanding and dismissive father. Vonni, an Irish expat who came to the village with her Greek lover only to be dumped by him, and Andreas, the owner of the taverna, are the catalysts who pull the others back into life and love. Binchy's writing is simple and straightforward, surprisingly so, and this is a straightforward, if not simple, tale. Readers used to a certain floridity about modern novels might take up the book with some suspicion. But by the end, you realize that its plainness is exactly what's needed. Nights of Rain and Stars is an unexpectedly absorbing and striking work from one of Ireland's best writers. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

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