Posted Monday, January 27th, 2003
Don't be an Eejit
Maeve Binchy's new novel Quentins is not one that I'd normally choose to read, for two reasons. Binchy's previous bestseller Tara Road is on Oprah's book club list, which made me suspect Quentins would be sappy and depressing. Also, my grandmother loves both Maeve Binchy and Jan Karon's "heartwarming" Mitford series. I tried to read Out to Mitford in a short-lived effort to discover something we could talk about together, only to conclude that if Grandma found Father Tim's philosophical ruminations on a stray dog interesting we would never see eye to eye. But I received Quentins as a gift, from my future mother-in-law, and therefore felt compelled to read it.Scandalously awful things happen to Our Heroine, Ella Brady. I immediately despised Ella when in the first chapter Binchy describes her thus: "From the start she seemed able to laugh at herself...She grew into a tall, confident girl who was open and friendly and who seemed to love her parents as much as they loved her." Ella is crafted as an irritating modern-day version of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the tan, blond, perfect-size-six heroines of Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High series. Fortunately, before long Ella falls for a sleazy married man and scandalous events ensue. For example, she's photographed returning from a holiday in Spain with her married lover, and the Dublin gossip columns print the photo with scintillating captions like "LOVE NEST." Also, her parents lose their home due to the machinations of The Sleazeball and have to move into their garden shed. So when Ella meets an honest, kindhearted millionaire and bravely confronts her past, I am more than willing to grant her the outrageously happy ending.
Quentins recounts the adventures of one Ella Brady, who has her heart broken by a scoundrel and decides to forget her sorrows by making a documentary about Dublin's Best Restaurant, Quentins. As Ella works to bring the film to life, we read the stories she's collected from the restaurant's proprietors, staff, and customers about the milestones that they celebrated (or mourned) there. Along the way, Ella finds a new romance and learns she must confront the heartbreaking scoundrel.
It's always tricky to possess an obligatory read. In my case, Mrs. Hickman gave me Quentins with the words, "I really want to read it too. Be sure to pass it on to me when you're done!" Clearly, Mrs. Hickman and I were going to discuss the book, meaning I'd need to actually read it, as opposed to zipping through the dust jacket, first chapter, and last chapter, English-major style. But the dust jacket intimated a maudlin storyline, intoning, "Quentins [apparently, the Best Restaurant in Dublin] has a thousand stories to tell: tales of love, of betrayal, of revenge; of times when it looked ready for success and of times when it seemed as if it must close in failure." Would I be intrigued by any of these "thousand stories" or would I find myself plowing desperately through a bunch of over-romanticized drivel? If I disliked the book, should I find something nice to say about it anyway? I imagined my future analysis, describing Quentins to Mrs. Hickman in a non-judgmental, Chris Farley style: "Oh yes, Quentins! Remember how [insert character who triumphs over tragedy here] triumphs over tragedy? That was great!"
Fortunately, Quentins surprised me.
I'm not saying that it's never maudlin or overwrought, and I'm not going to recommend you run out and purchase a copy to read during your next beach vacation. But if you are looking for a book to discuss with women whose tastes are divergent from yours, this book has a lot to recommend it. Quentins is a quick and entertaining read, and enough happens in it to produce lots of conversation fodder. I'm actually excited to discuss it with Mrs. Hickman, and I'm even going to mention to Grandma that I read it.
There were a few things about Quentins that made me regard it with particular warmth:
Of the "thousands" of stories Quentins has to tell, a few are quite interesting. While many of the vignettes scattered throughout the book are predictable and insipid (a poor man finds a wallet; instead of taking the money, he returns it to the restaurant owners; he is rewarded with a huge promotion at work), several of them are compelling. We learn how Quentins' mysterious proprietor comes to own the restaurant, and why he chooses to live in Morocco, rarely returning to Ireland. We meet the slow-witted brother of the chef, who becomes one of Dublin's best-known organic gardeners. And we hear how a handicapped woman plays matchmaker for her daughter and a befuddled, recently divorced colleague.
Ella's best friend, Deirdre, is a truly interesting character. Deirdre possesses none of Ella's insipid perfection. She has a habit of indiscriminately sleeping with inappropriate men, she is wonderfully cynical, and she's fiercely loyal to Ella. In my opinion, Quentins should have been written about her.
Quentins gave me my best new vocabulary word this year. Ella and her friends are always describing themselves and each other as "eejits." According to the BBCNews E-Cyclopedia, an eejit may be defined as "[an] excessively foolish fellow, stereotypical Irish insult". Plain "idiot" according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here's an example of eejit in a sentence: You'd be an eejit to give your grandma a copy of Sex and the City for her birthday; give her a copy of Quentins instead.
Quentins, by Maeve Binchy. Hardcover. Published by EP Dutton; 352 pages; ISBN 0525946829. $25.95.
Related Links:Definition of eejit
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Tuesday, January 28th, 2003 at 9:10 AM
Interesting review, Anne. I didn't realize Maeve Binchy was so . . . British. It sounds kind of like "Harry Potter and the Amazing Biological Clock."
Posted by Ellen Janis on Tuesday, January 28th, 2003 at 5:42 PM
Although the words "Maeve" and "Binchy" automatically conjour up an image of a "pudgy" Minnie Driver and make my stomach turn, i enjoyed reading your quippy review, anne. did you tell ms. hickman about salome magazine? or grandma?