Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

street of houses painted in bright daubs of color
Bright paint covers heartbreaks.

Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road begins in the 1980s as a chatter of Dublin teens take their first jobs.

Ria Johnson is a home-and-hearth, family-and-friends type. Like most of her girlfriends, she plans to work only until she lands a husband. Ria’s best friend, Rosemary Ryan, is a “career first, fellows later” type.

When slick salesman Danny Lynch is transferred to the real estate office in which Ria and Rosemary work, both are smitten. Danny has eyes only for Ria. When they marry, Rosemary is Ria’s maid of honor.

Danny helps a sleazy businessman unload an unsaleable property, acquiring a 1870’s home on Tara Road and the businessman’s mentorship in the process.

Thirteen years later, Ria is about to tell Danny she wants a third child, when Danny says he’s leaving her for his young, pregnant girlfriend.

While still reeling from the news, Ria accidentally picks up a phone call from a woman in America who wants a home for the summer. Impulsively, Ria and Marilyn decided to exchange houses for two months.

Each woman gets to see life—and herself—from a different perspective.

Sadly, although all Binchy’s female characters have life-shattering experiences, few learn from those experiences anything more than how to put a good face on a bad situation.

Tara Road by Maeve Binchy
Delacorte Press. ©1998. 502 p.
1999 bestseller #10; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Horse Whisperer (novel)

dark horse runs in mountainsThe Horse Whisperer starts with a freak accident in which one teenage girl and her horse are killed, another girl and her horse both badly injured.

Grace Graves has to adjust to a prosthetic leg and fear of being different. Her horse, Pilgrim, is just as afraid, and he turns savage. The vet thinks Pilgrim’s injuries so severe he should be put down.

Annie Graves believes if Pilgrim dies, her daughter will never recover emotionally from the accident. Robert Graves fears Grace won’t recover if she’s coddled too much. Not a horse lover himself, he is not as keen on keeping Pilgrim alive.

When veterinarians can’t help Pilgrim, Annie casts a wider net, learning about a man said to be able to calm wild horses. She packs up Grace, has Pilgrim loaded into a horse trailer, and heads for Montana. Tom Booker, who has a ranch there, is said by some to be a horse whisperer, a magician with horses. Tom says what he does is train owners to listen to their horses.

A film industry veteran, Nicholas Evans projects his Rocky Mountain story onto readers’ imaginations. What he doesn’t do is tack a happy-ever-after on a deeply moving story about family dynamics.

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans
Delacorte Press. ©1995. 323 p.
1995 bestseller #10; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Rose Madder by Stephen King

An old oil painting wrapped in ripped brown paper.
A romance starts with an oil painting

Stephen King begins Rose Madder at the end of a marriage.

One day Rosie Daniels can’t take any more. She takes her husband’s debit card, painfully walks to the bus station, and rides away from the husband who repeatedly had put her in the hospital.

Her husband, Norman, is a cop. He’s really good at finding people.

Rosie gets off the bus in a city in the next time zone. She has no family, no friends, no job skills.

She has to find a way to survive until she can build a new life for herself.

Rosie finds friends, work, and a decent guy at supersonic speed.

That story alone would be enough for most novelists to tackle. As he did in his 1994 novel Gerald’s Game, King makes his heroine’s situation worse by bringing in a supernatural element. In Rose Madder, that element is a painting of another world into which Rosie is literally drawn.

Had King confined his tale to the real world, the story would have been terrifying.  The addition of the supernatural dilutes the story’s impact with fake gore and glosses over the long-term physical and psychological effects of abuse.

Rose Madder does no favors to readers or abused women.

Rose Madder by Stephen King
Viking. ©1995. 420 p.
1995 bestseller #7; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Gift from Danielle Steel

a home in a 1950s midwestern town is in center of dust jacket
Country scene isn’t typical for  Danielle Steel novel.

The Gift is a radical departure for famed romance-writer Danielle Steel. There’s some romance in it, but it’s almost a coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s.

When Maribeth Roberson’s father refuses to let her go to the sophomore prom in a sexy dress, she changes clothes and goes with a jerk she scarcely knows.

When the jerk gets drunk, a handsome senior gives her a ride home. He takes advantage of Maribeth’s naiveté.

Sixteen and pregnant, Maribeth leaves home. She gets off the bus in an Iowa town, gets a job waitressing, hoping to earn enough pay for the baby’s delivery. She wants to give the baby up for adoption, then go to college.

Maribeth becomes friends with 16-year-old Tommy Whittaker who eats most nights at the restaurant. Home is too depressing since his younger sister’s death. After 22 years of marriage, his parents seem to have lost all interest in each other and him.

Steel’s organization of her story makes the ending too predictable for the novel to rate an A, but the characters in The Gift come across as real people. There’s not a Hermes handbag to be seen anywhere.

And Steel doesn’t glue a happy ending on her story. She just gives glimmers of hope for the Whittakers and Maribeth.

That ending feels exactly right.

The Gift by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1994. 216 p.
1994 bestseller #04; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

All Around the Town

bloody handprint on a curtain on open sliding doorIf you’ve watched television in the last 50 years, you’ve seen pieces of the plot of All Around the Town many times in old movies.

The plot’s container is the tale of Laurie Kenyon, a college student accused of murdering her English professor. Her fingerprints are all over his bedroom.

Laurie was kidnapped at age 4 and sexually abused for two years before the kidnappers abandoned her. When she is arrested for murder, the four personalities she developed to cope with her trauma emerge.

Laurie’s sister, a lawyer, takes on her defense, aided by a handsome, unmarried psychiatrist.

When they abducted Laurie, Bic and Opal Hawkins were tavern entertainers. Laurie’s arrest coincides Bic hitting the big time as a TV evangelist. Using their TV names, Rev. Bobby and Carla Hawkins, they pose as buyers for the Kenyon sisters’ home, which allows them to wiretap it so the reverend can get rid of Laurie if one of her personalities names him as her kidnapper.

Mary Higgins Clark mashes all these implausible elements together, sweetening the mix with even more implausible elements.

In the end, the implausibilities don’t matter. No sensible reader could care about any of these characters. They’ll be relieved at the story’s end when Laurie goes off to play golf.

All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster. ©1992. 302 p.
1992 bestseller #10; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan

Four black women in vivid dresses and hats
The characters are as vivid as the cover.

Waiting to Exhale is a powerful novel unlike any other I’ve read. I held my breath for fear that, unable to sustain the intensity, Terry McMillan would tack on happy ending.

I need not have worried.

Waiting is about four black women friends, each looking for a man who will be her sex partner, friend, companion, help meet, husband, and father to her children. So far, their men have rung up in the loser category.

Each chapter is a first-person account by one of the four women about what’s going on in her life, including her conversations with the others.

Readers can see from the women’s narratives that each of the four is intelligent, caring, and resourceful, respected at work and among her peers. Readers can also see that none of the four gives herself credit for her abilities and achievements.

Each woman thinks she can’t get along without a man who will take her breath away. Each fails to see that her heartthrob may take her for everything else she has, too.

McMillan gives the novel a psychologically sensible ending that’s just enough to make you hopeful things will get better for the four “sistuhs” who feel like your sisters by the end of the novel.

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
Viking. ©1992. 409 p.
1992 bestseller #9; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Stars Shine Down

City skyscrapers are revealed in star-shaped cutout
Lara Cameron aims very high.

The Stars Shine Down is a made-for-viewing novel by Sidney Sheldon that never made it to the screen, which is where it belongs.

Lara Cameron is unwanted at birth, grows up unwanted, and forces herself on America’s male-dominated, commercial real estate world.

She is in her twenties in the 1980s , with only a high school education and no connections, but she knows one thing: OPM. People make fortunes by using other people’s money.

Lara ruthlessly goes after her goals. She has an instinctive sense of what the public wants and aims to deliver it months before other developers can.

She works very hard and she demands anyone who works for her work equally hard. She’s willing to take risks; she’s using other people’s money.

Though she uses people, demanding unquestioned loyalty, Lara is generous to those loyal to her.

She also is quite unable to believe any perspective than her own could be valid.

Stars is a totally absorbing story, easily read in an evening before an early bedtime. It’s also totally preposterous. Only when you finish the last page do you realize Sheldon duped you just as Lara duped people.

Lara Cameron isn’t a Horatio Alger heroine: She’s a nut case.

The Stars Shine Down by Sidney Sheldon
William Morrow. ©1992. 400 p.
1992 bestseller #6; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

 Handcuffs hanging on a bedpost
Those are handcuffs on the bedpost.

Lawyer Gerald Burlingame enjoys bondage games with his wife. As Gerald’s Game opens, the fun as worn off: Jessie is handcuffed to a bed headboard in their rural Maine summer home.

Her situation triggers dark, childhood memories. She kicks out, knocking the breath out of Gerald and triggering a coronary. Gerald is dead within minutes.

Jessie is trapped.

She can’t call for help: There’s no one to hear. She can’t reach the phone. She can’t reach the handcuff keys.

All she can do is listen to the outside door bang and relive the horrors of July 20, 1963, the day she watched the solar eclipse with her father.

Jessie is finally freed, but her misery doesn’t end there. She still has repressed childhood psychological problems as well as some memories of her 28 hours of captivity that she has to deal with. She addresses her residual problems by writing about them in a letter to a friend mentioned in the bondage chapters.

What Stephen King delivers in Gerald’s Game is a terrifying tale: It’s much easier to dismiss as fiction a supernatural evil thing than to ignore the evil within people.

Fortunately, Jessie’s letter shows not all people are rotten and some are quite decent.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking. ©1992. 332 p.
1992 bestseller #3; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Dolores Claiborne, the novel

Woman peers down into well as the sun goes into full eclipse above her
It’s a solar eclipse.

Dolores Claiborne is a Stephen King novel for people who think they don’t like Stephen King novels. Its horrors all have human origins and no good deed goes unpunished.

On page one, Dolores Claiborne has already been advised of her rights. Dolores is thought to have killed her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, for whom Dolores had worked since her teens.

The rest of the novel is a transcript of what Dolores tells to  the police chief and his deputy at Little Tall Island, Maine, and their stenographer.

Dolores freely admits that she killed her husband 29 years earlier during a solar eclipse. Although most people suspected her, no one could prove she did it.

Dolores says she didn’t kill Vera, although sometimes she would have liked to. Vera was a bossy, nasty, bitchy woman. After Dolores’s husband’s death, even her children didn’t want to live at home.

Dolores put up with Vera because there were few jobs available and she was used to Vera’s habits.  Over the years, the women battled their own demons and each other, finally seeming to reach an armed truce.

When Vera died, she left her estate, valued at $30 million, to Dolores, which is why Dolores is being questioned.

Dolores says, “Most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking, ©1992. 305 p.
1992 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

September by Rosamunde Pilcher

Fallen brown leaves cover dustjacket of “September”Rosamunde Pilcher’s September is a restful novel, full of hardworking, neighborly, nice people who, though they occasionally do things you might not approve of, are nonetheless people you’d be glad to know.

The story focuses on two families in the Scots Highlands: the Balmerinos and the Airds. The Balmerino family has a title, land, and no money.  Lord and Lady Balmerino— Archie and Isobel—take in American tourists to make ends meet.

The Airds family has money. Edmund is an executive. Virginia, more than 20 years younger, is his second wife. He has an adult daughter by his late wife, and an 8-year-old son by Virginia.

Edmund and Archie were best friends for years, but a coolness developed between them shortly before Edmund’s wife’s death.

A newcomer triggers events that resolve that coolness when she organizes a big dance for her daughter’s 21st birthday, and gets everyone in the community involved.

The story’s ending is a tad too neatly predictable, but Pilchers’s characterizations, especially in the early chapters, are beautifully sketched. Even minor characters, like the local drunk and the Pakistani couple who run the village market, feel recognizable from her descriptions.

September requires attentive reading, which it richly, calmly, lovingly, repays.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher
St. Martin’s Press. ©1990. 536 p.
1990 bestseller #10; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni