Today’s brave new literary culture seems to demand oddballs, preferably super ones. They can be benign oddballs, like Harry Potter, or dark ones (the vampire of your choice), but real people are somewhat out of fashion these days. Nevertheless, a brave coterie of writers, like Irish stalwart Maeve Binchy here in Heart and Soul, insists against all odds on telling readers that ordinary folks still exist.
St. Brigid’s Heart Clinic is based in a white elephant section of Dublin, and the hospital head honcho aches to convert the site to good money. Unfortunately for him, new director Clara Casey doggedly assembles an excellent staff to run the place. In true Binchyan fashion, each of the new employees has a story of his/her own, a technique that turns run-of-the-mill personalities into memorable, one-of-a-kind individuals.
Chief among them is the little Polish immigrant, Ania, who has more personal history than anyone suspects, but repudiates it in her new country. Then there is the nice heart doctor, Declan, who falls in love with the beautiful nurse, Fiona, and has a terrible accident. There are heart patient Bobby and his malicious wife; Eileen, who is not what she seems; and Brian, the local priest who attracts her unwanted attentions. Not to mention various callow offspring and a whole host of other characters whose stories braid together until the direction of each new twist depends on the ones around it.
The author has written 14 other heartwarming novels about such ordinary people, not an accomplishment that will win her many literary prizes in our time. Her notable storytelling skills are taken for granted, and her subversive humor, based on situations more than repartee—the kind that makes the reader look up and grin as it sinks in—often goes unappreciated.
Nevertheless, as Binchy’s fiction sometimes points out, we often regret the things we don’t do. My recommendation, then: rein in your taste for spectacle and read this book about real human beings.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.