With MINDING FRANKIE, Maeve Binchy --- a beloved author in her Irish homeland --- presents a cheery, special sort of gift to those who enjoy a light read. Her story centers on the native people of the Irish countryside, transporting us to tranquil shores of a deep-rooted landscape. The tale places readers firmly in place and time, focusing on many generations of folks who know each other well. The book presents dozens of personal stories that show a greater evolution of people's lives and envision a kind of synergy and commonality between those with different values and backgrounds.
MINDING FRANKIE begins with a simple introduction of Josie and Charles Lynch, and their son, Noel. The Lynch trio has only recently been invaded by Noel's 40-year-old cousin, Emily, a bright-natured American who (finding herself jobless) comes to stay to get to know her extended family. Emily has no trouble whatsoever settling in, and the Lynches feel a kinship with her and begin to appreciate the value of their own lineage.
However, appreciating where you come from doesn't necessarily mean there aren't problems in the here and now. Take Noel, for instance, a young adult who knows he belongs in his homeland but is unhappy and seems always to have been. Noel is a long-time employee of a shop that specializes in builders' merchandise, a blue-collar worker with few opportunities ahead. Feeling undervalued and socially awkward, he approaches situations with little to no confidence, leaving him with few friends and no emotional satisfaction. He confines himself to habit and conceals a serious drinking problem, most especially from his parents. But cousin Emily is not fooled, having been raised by an alcoholic. Recognizing the problem immediately, she becomes determined to be a positive influence, helping Noel seek a better outlet for his frustrations and general inactivity.
The evolution of Noel's life becomes a forced and rapid change once a pregnant woman contacts him and reveals she's having his baby (and also that she's dying of cancer and won't be there for her baby daughter). Little more than a stranger, Stella makes the request knowing that Noel is an alcoholic because she doesn't want her baby to enter the foster care system that left her with memories of abuse and harm. At first, Noel wants no part of raising any child and believes he would be a horrendous father. But upon realizing his daughter will have no one, he becomes determined to give it a go --- largely due to Emily's encouragement and understanding. After seeking help for alcoholism, Noel is an amazed and proud father who begins to live up to the responsibility of caring for another human being.
The only hitch to permanent bliss is Noel's drinking history. Though he has custody, he's under vigilant supervision. Moira, a tyrannical social worker, has been assigned to his case and suspiciously monitors his household for worrisome signs, even spying on his family members and friends at all hours of the day and night in an attempt to catch him in some wrongful or irresponsible act. At the heart of Moira's problem is her own family's dysfunction, leading her to believe that it isn't possible for any alcoholic to be a decent father.
In MINDING FRANKIE, dozens of characters enter the scene at different points; I won't get into these because there are simply too many. The large cast becomes slightly confusing at times, yet Binchy shows surprising expertise at making it work. She has essentially created an entire community here from inspiration, reflecting her own Irish background, culture and dialect. Her characters are diverse in background and personality, though it's intriguing to read about what life is like for Irish natives and to be able to compare thought processes and approaches to those of many Americans.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on March 28, 2011