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

Cold Mountain (novel)

Mountains in deep shades of blue
The mountain looks cold.

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a rarity: A Civil War novel that isn’t written in clichés.

At Petersburg, Confederate soldier Inman was fatally wounded but he survived anyway. In chapter 1, he steps from a hospital window and starts for Cold Mountain, hoping Ada has waited for him.

Ada had come to Cold Mountain with her father. Inman wrangled an introduction. Before he left, she and Inman had an understanding.  While Inman was away, Ada’s father died.

Ada is educated, but she has no domestic skills. On her own, she couldn’t survive. A neighbor sends Ruby to Ada. Ruby can’t read or write, but she can bargain. She offers to teach Ada how to run a farm. They’ll work together, eat together, but not live together. “Everybody empties their own night jar,” Ruby says.

While Inman hikes home, trying to stay healthy and avoid being caught as a deserter, the women try to keep a roof over their heads, stockpile food and fuel for the winter, and avoid marauding soldiers.

Frazier makes his characters and settings come alive in prose that never uses an unfamiliar word when a familiar one will work, never tells what he can show.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press. ©1997. 356 p.
1997 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Wings by Danielle Steel

an airplane propeller
The story has more action than the cover.

Wings is the second Danielle Steel novel to make the 1994 bestseller list and, like fourth-placed The Gift, and eighth-placed Accident, it breaks from Steel’s romance formula: Its heroine, Cassie O’Malley, prefers overalls to Dior gowns.

Growing up on rural airstrip and the daughter of a WWI pilot, Cassie dreams of flying, which her dad and mom think unsuitable for a woman. Her father’s wartime buddy and post-war partner, Nick Galvin, recognizes Cassie’s determination and natural talent. He secretly gives her flying lessons.

After Cassie wins a flying competition, Desmond Williams, whose firm builds aircraft, offers her a contract that entails testing new aircraft and making public appearances.

Nick thinks Desmond is up to no-good. He’s especially leery of Desmond’s plan to have Cassie repeat the round-the-world flight on which Amelia Earhart disappeared. Nick and Cassie fall out over it.

When World War II breaks out, Nick goes to England to train pilots. He never writes to Cassie.

Having made her point that women need not be confined to the kitchen and bedroom, Steel wraps the story up neatly, pairing off Cassie with Nick whose interest in Cassie, like Desmond’s, revolves around aircraft.

Wings by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1994. 400 p.
1994 bestseller #07; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Till We Meet Again

An airplane rises against clouds that form the dust jacket background.Till We Meet Again is a predictable romance raised above the ordinary by Judith Krantz’s storytelling ability.

The novel is about three French women: Eve de Lancel and her two daughters, the dutiful and refined Delphine and the anything-but refined tomboy called Freddy.

As a teenager in 1913 Dijon, Eve is obsessed with popular music. She runs off to Paris with touring music hall singer Alain Marais.

When he abandons her, Eve becomes a singer, entertaining WWI troops always ending her performances with “Till We Meet Again.”

Post-war, she marries Vicomte Paul de Lancel, heir to a great Champagne winery and a career diplomat.

While they are stationed in Los Angeles, their daughters go rogue.

At 18, Delphine is starring in movies.

At 16, Freddy solos after secretly taking flying lessons she paid for by working at Woolworths.

The novel’s characters, while implausible as a set, seem reasonably plausible as individuals because Krantz adeptly changes focus before readers can study them a particular character too closely.

Krantz scatters her text with historical facts that help sustain the illusion of plausibility.

The novel’s ending, while too predictable, doesn’t feel pasted-on.

Till We Meet Again isn’t great literature, but it’s good popular fiction.

Till We Meet Again by Judith Krantz
Crown. ©1988. 534 p.
1988 bestseller #6; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Whiff of Danger Makes The Salamander Fascinating

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Like many novels before the Great War, The Salamander attempts to explain social changes that terrified people who had grown to adulthood during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Author Owen Johnson focuses on one of the young women — Salamanders — who, like their brothers, were leaving small towns for the easy money and fun of New York City.

For the most part, Salamanders don’t work. They live by their wits and their looks.

One Salamander, Doré Baxter, called Dodo by her city friends, is bright, impulsive, ambitious, and highly principled in a scatterbrained way.

Dodo has dozens of men who dote on her, buy her meals, give her flowers or wine she can sell, but she doesn’t take money or expensive gifts: She is not that kind of girl.

Dodo plays one man against the other until she accidentally sets up a rivalry among powerful men that threatens to tear her like a kitten in among wolves.

The plot skeleton is familiar, as are some of the scenes, but Johnson’s jerky, cinema verity story-telling makes Dodo appealing even to those who find her life appalling.

I found myself holding my breath for fear of what I knew could happen to Dodo that she believed happened only to other people.

Tip: Read the novel before reading the foreword.

The Salamander
By Owen Johnson
Illustrated by Everett Shinn
Project Gutenberg EBook #36355
1914 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Freedom Examines Wife as CEO of Home

In This Freedom, A.S.M. Hutchinson tells the story of the marriage of two people who never fall out of love, but fall out of harmony.

bank signFrom her high chair, Rosalie Aubyn found the world of men exciting, the world of women dull. She decides to become part of men’s world as a banker — a striking choice in the early 1900s when women in offices were a rarity.

Intent on a celibate life, Rosalie suddenly finds herself passionately in love and as suddenly married to Harry Occleve, a rising lawyer.

Rosalie views running a home like running her business: As CEO she plans, hires, and delegates housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and governesses.

Although Harry is proud of his wife’s career accomplishments, he feels she needs to be more of a mother and homemaker. He sees their children are remote, undemonstrative, and unloving.

Hutchinson’s character portraits mingle precision with nuance. He relates the tale in a way that makes readers understand why each of the main characters feels and acts as he or she does.

The novel’s themes are timeless, but in the last 50 years they have ceased to be topics of real public discussion. Rereading This Freedom might be a useful way to reignite debate once more about the “proper role of women,” that loaded phrase implying a broad range of behavior with significant implications for society.

This Freedom
A. S. M. [Arthur Stuart-Mentet] Hutchinson
1922 Bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg ebook #6415
My grade: B+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni