Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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The Beekeepers Ball

by Susan Wiggs Harlequin MIRA Hardcover (June 2014) The Rosy Glow of Romance Blame it on Yelp, blame it on the unspoken rule for giving books five star reviews, blame it on the political correctness mania that is sweeping campuses, but it seems that novels these days demand less of readers than they used to. The reader is urged to enjoy rather than to think. In an article in The New York Times Book Review of August 30 2015, author Zoe Heller noted that her graduate students (graduate students!) complained about the required reading if they didn’t like the characters, or if they had any trouble following the story. They were, she said, indignant. It was if the author were a host who had forgotten to make his guests comfortable. I’m assuming these students were reading literary fiction rather than romance. Great literature has always challenged assumptions. That is the purpose of art. It is not the purpose of romance novels, however. The romance writer’s author’s goal is to take the reader away from gritty reality into the realm of dreams. So it is with The Beekeepers Ball, by Susan Wiggs.  This best-selling mass market romance author returns to the idyllic Bella Vista farm in Sonoma County, California where her heroine, Isabel, is hard at work planning her half-sister’s wedding and the opening of her cooking school. Isabel keeps bees, hence the title, and a beekeeping mishap starts the story, her introduction to bee-allergic biographer Cormac O’Neill. The book is written in chapters that alternate between Denmark under the German occupation and present-day California. This has the affect of reminding readers of their own good fortune just to be living in this time and place and contributes to the feel-good nature of the book. The developing relationship between Isabel and Mac is sweet. In addition, a romance emerges between two  characters in their late seventies, and this is refreshing. Mouth-watering recipes featuring honey dot the pages. As a writer who is still trying to learn the art of writing fiction after years of journalism, I found Wigg’s book structure unusual to say the least. Somehow Wiggs makes the novel work while disobeying the rule to up the conflict and tone down the flashbacks. Moreover, while the flashbacks are active, there is a lot of passivity in the present-day settings. It’s as if Bella Vista is drowning in honey. Since I know the countryside around Sonoma well, I found the descriptions of it and its small, wealthy little towns both accurate and gauzy. It was like looking at them through a veil – and I don’t mean a beekeeper’s veil. First of all, Bella Vista seems to have been under Isabel’s grandfather’s ownership without any visible means of support. Ostensibly an apple farm, the place is being transformed by the work crew into “a destination cooking school.” The only animals on the farm are cats, dogs and bees, which keep the place proudly “critter-free.” Secondly, the renovation is taking place without a whole lot of stress on the part of its owner. Actually, we are told about the stress, but it is not evident. When O’Neill mentions to Isabel that she should put in a swimming pool, she is embarrassed that she hadn’t thought of it herself. Later in the book, we see excavations being dug for a pool. Isabel says, “What’s another hundred grand?”  What indeed? There is no conflict whatsoever between the members of this very odd family, even though the half-sisters have only recently met each other and share a father and an actual birthdate. Think about that, reader – the potential for conflict is huge. It’s just avoided in this book. No one has any financial stress except a minor character, a homeless pregnant teenager whom Isabel takes care of, thus eliminating that conflict. The cooking school renovations are apparently paid for by the sale of family artifacts sold by Tess, the newly discovered half sister, who is a fine arts appraiser and auctioneer. But how this family had any artifacts to sell is not made clear. The grandparents arrived penniless in the US from war-torn Europe. The only real conflicts are in flashback, to the World War II experiences of Isabel’s grandparents. Naturally, the grandparents behaved bravely under extreme danger in that war and despite their hardships, managed to live happily ever after in America.  But who am I to quibble?  Despite its quirks, I read this book compulsively from beginning to end. Ms. Wiggs captured my attention even as I could not help noting the flaws in motivation and causation noted above. Then again, this is the second in the Bella Vista series and having missed the first, perhaps the characters and their backgrounds are more fully fleshed out in the previous book. Romance is romance and it outsells any other genre.  This author is like the welcoming host who makes guests so comfortable they can flop on the couch. This is a good read for the last warm days of summer.

Nora Webster

By Colm Toibin Scribner, 2014 When this book came out a year or so ago, a reviewer described it as a book about a quiet Irish widow, a book in which nothing much happens. So I didn’t pick it up immediately. But now I have. And in the hands of the extraordinary writer Colm Toibin, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn or circumscribed it may seem, is made clear.  As for the claim that “nothing happens” in this novel, that is nonsense. For any young widow left with four children to support on very little money, life could be desperate. How Nora copes, calmly, quietly, is the core of this moving story. Nora Webster, we learn, is a mother of two girls in their late teens and two younger boys. Happily married to Maurice, a popular school teacher, she is shell-shocked at his agonizing death. It seems that both priest and doctor would not allow enough pain-killers for the dying man because it might damage his heart. This subtle dig at religious rigidity is all that Toibin allows himself in this novel. In fact, Nora’s greatest support comes from two religious women, a Sister Thomas, who seems like a busy-body, but offers non-judgmental love at every turn, and a former nun who becomes Nora’s singing teacher. Writers of fiction are often advised to create characters that readers will like. Toibin does nothing so obvious. He offers us Nora, who is prickly and defensive, who forbids herself the expression of much emotion, whose own mother preferred her sisters and sons-in-law to Nora, and who, on the surface, does not offer much comfort to her grieving children. The girls were away at school, but the younger boys were placed with Nora’s aunt while Nora tended to her dying husband. During this time the older boy, Donal, developed a stutter. Her aunt asks Nora why she never once checked on her kids the whole time their father was in hospital. Nora has no convincing answer except to say her time was fully occupied. Donal becomes the focus of Nora’s anxiety, though this is never stated out loud. She tries quiet activities to make the children feel life can continue normally, like taking them for an outing to Dublin, like renting a caravan for a summer vacation to make up for her having to sell the family beach cottage, like allowing her sister-in-law to build a dark-room so Donal can develop his photographs. Nora’s gradual opening up, like a flower, to allow others to help her is the story arc of this book. Her husband’s sister finds a boarding school for Donal, a Christian Brothers school with a photography club and Nora lets her sister-in-law pay for the tuition. Like most kids, the boy is lonely at first and Nora senses, when she visits him, that he wants to come home. Like Nora, he is guarded about his feelings and she won’t let him articulate them. Instead, she promises, simply, to visit him every weekend. Later, her second daughter, Aine, becomes involved in student politics, and is caught up in a demonstration on what became known as Bloody Sunday. She cannot be found. The family looks for her and in the end, Nora says she’s going home. (The girl is fine.)In these two instances, in which Nora demonstrates the opposite of helicopter parenting, we see that she is in fact a superb parent. She allows her children a chance to build their own resilience. The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans three years. These were momentous years in Ireland, the beginning of The Troubles, in which Northern Ireland became the focus of religious and political factionalism and the IRA became active. They were also momentous years for women. Feminism is never mentioned in this book. In fact, Nora, who is forced to return to work as a widow at the same firm she worked for before she married, regrets the loss of her freedom. While in the end she masters her bookkeeping job, we sense that she never enjoys it, hates the web of office politics, and wishes she could have her old life back. Nora says, “Never once, in the 21 years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration.”  While one reviewer of this book found this to be self-deceptive, I found this comment by Nora to be very believable. There was, and still is, a sub-set of women who love the fulfillment of being able to create a full-time loving and secure home for their families. And this is why Colm Toibin is such a marvelous writer. He never allows himself to be seduced by current trends. Once again he has pulled off a masterpiece.