Father Flynn has a problem: basically the sheer weariness that comes of being a religious man in an increasingly uninterested and illiterate religious climate. This is Ireland, to be sure, traditionally deeply Catholic, but times, it seems, have changed, and with a vengeance. What's more, this decline is accompanied by the rise of superstition concerning the fabled St. Ann's Well in Whitethorn Woods outside Rossmore, which seems to be drawing more petitioners than ever as church attendance declines.

At first, this reader would like to have stayed with that premise, for stellar Irish novelist Maeve Binchy can display unexpected depths, for a crowd-pleasing author, in a one-on-one examination of human nature and its contrarieties. Besides, Father Flynn is an appealing character. Luckily, he still gets the last word, but the author chooses to take Whitethorn Woods in a different direction, telling short-short stories with sometimes the subtlest of ties: the hypocritical doctor, the kidnapped baby, her kidnapper, the straight male hairdresser, the nightclub stripper who recognizes goodness when she sees it. One soon becomes engaged in the lives of more than two-dozen characters (mostly self-narrated accounts with similar voices) from the cleverly murderous (Becca) to the endearingly simple (Neddy, though he is wiser than people think). Though the thread might be tenuous, all the stories are connected in some way with the well, or with the major highway that threatens to wipe out the whole woods. Binchy has demonstrated before that she can put seemingly disparate quilt pieces together without a mismatch. Here again she sews her seams with tiny stitches, some of which only appear toward the end of the project. Each addition opens new perspectives from which we realign our story pattern.

Touches of humor enliven the account, but Binchy's chief stock-in-trade here is making relatively average lives colorful and worth our interest. She is not a post-postmodern ironist, which is a relief, because neither is this reader.

Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

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