Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Review: The Glass Lake

A co-worker once described books like these as "chewing gum for the eyes." What an apt description of this book! Charming, interesting, easy on the brain, long, available in paperback. Maeve Binchy has an easy, conversational style which makes this the perfect book for beach, hammock, or plane. Best of all, I picked this up for 50 cents (in paperback) at a used book sale.

The story is about Kit McMahon and her mother, Helen, who live in Lough Glass, commonly referred to as "Glass Lake," although the correct translation would be "Green Lake." (I'll have to take Ms. Binchy's word for it.) Lough Glass is also the name of the small village beside the lake where Kit and Mrs. McMahon live. The village has one road through it, with the boys' school at one end, the girls' school at the other, and everyone knows everyone else.

Helen is an outsider, originally from Dublin, who moved into the village after her marriage to Martin, the local chemist. She does not fit in. She spends a lot of time walking by the lake, by herself. She is restless, but it's the early 1950's and there's not much opportunity for women, especially in a small village.

Helen had a great love in her life, Louis Gray, who left her to run off with a wealthy young woman. Helen married Martin on the rebound after warning him he would never have her heart. Martin agreed.

One wild night, Helen goes for a walk near the Lough Glass and doesn't come back. The McMahon's small boat is found, untied and floating upside down. Helen is assumed to have drowned. But did she commit suicide? This is a mortal sin in 1950's Catholicism and means the deceased could not be buried on consecrated ground inside the cemetery. So when 12-year-old Kit finds a letter addressed to Martin on his pillow. Fearing it is a suicide note, Kit burns it, unopened.

Of course, Helen hadn't thrown herself into Lough Glass.

The novel follows the lives of Kit, Helen, their family, friends and acquaintances for the next several years. Lough Glass is populated with characters and we know them, of course, mainly through the eyes of Kit and Helen, but occasionally we hear their voices. The 1950's and early 1960's were the calm before the great social storm waiting to occur and there are hints and ripples of the changes to come.

I thought Ms. Binchy captured the friendship between Kit and Clio very well. It's a friendship based more on proximity and convenience than real understanding and compatibility. I had a few of those myself, growing up, though they were not quite as stormy as Kit and Clio.

There is really no great moral to this story. Actions have consequences and people have to learn to live with them, but that's nothing new. People have sex, or talk about having sex, but it's all quite discreet and when it happens it's behind closed doors. It's more like reading a chatty and somewhat gossipy newsletter about fairly ordinary folks who have a Deep, Dark Secret.

I was interested in what happens next, but I didn't quite care about what happened to Kit and Helen. I thought the ending was wrapped up a bit too neatly; there was a bit of deus ex machina about it. But by page 700, maybe it was just that Ms. Binchy was tired of writing about these folks. This is one book I'll lend around to my family and not care if it comes back.

On the March Hare Scale: 2.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks