Penny Vincenzi is known for her sweeping, dramatic, often surprising sagas that usually focus on large families and associates, groups of people who have long-standing connections by virtue of blood or business (and sometimes both). In her latest novel, Vincenzi takes a startlingly different approach. Here she uses her tried-and-true approach of focusing on intersecting lives, but the lives of random strangers intersect (sometimes literally) following a harrowing traffic accident on Britain’s M4 motorway between London and Wales.
THE BEST OF TIMES opens with a journalistic-style account of the fictional accident and then steps back in time, as it explores the lives of some of the key players in the accident, examining who they are and outlining how they happened to be on that particular road at that pivotal time.
At the center of the story is handsome doctor Jonathan Gilliatt, a happily married father of three who is carrying on an affair with Abi, a sexy younger woman (who happens to be in his car at the time of the accident). How will he explain her presence to the police, the newspapers --- and his wife? There’s also eager groom Toby and his best man Barney, rushing to get to the church in time for Toby’s wedding to Tamara, but delayed by a top-secret errand that would destroy Tamara if she knew of it. There’s Mary, an elderly lady heading to London to reunite with the love of her life, an American man she met during World War II. Both of them are widowed, now finally free to be together after 60 years apart. And there’s Georgia, an aspiring (but ambivalent) actress on the way to the audition of her life.
Following the catastrophic accident, other players enter the scene, including doctors who treat the wounded at the hospital, the friends and families of those involved, the police officers inquiring into the cause of the crash, and the farmer who witnesses the whole thing and becomes intimately involved with one of the crash victims. Encounters at hospitals, in hotels, and in courtrooms bring the accident participants together again and again --- often resulting in surprising connections, new opportunities, and even true love.
Vincenzi’s experiment with this new approach is rewarding, especially for long-time readers who might have thought they had her formula figured out. Here she juggles multiple plot lines, a mystery or two, and several romances, all while manufacturing circumstances (many based on coincidence) to bring together these characters who come from different worlds. At times the plotline lags slightly, especially when the narrative gets bogged down in exploring who is at fault for the crash. In all likelihood, most readers won’t even really care much about the outcome of that investigation; instead, they’re more invested in whether or not the couples they’re rooting for will wind up together.
But when the happily-ever-afters come, they arrive in abundance, leaving readers deeply satisfied even as they consider if, or how, the events of an instance can leave an impression for a lifetime.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010
The Best of Times