Pros: rich novel with incredible character development
Cons: I couldn't read it all in one sitting
I might have become a Maeve Binchy fan after reading her novel Circle of Friends, but one of my all-time favorite books has to be her novel The Glass Lake, which also takes place in th 1950s in a small Irish town.
::: Lough Glass :::
Kit McMahon lives in the town of Lough Glass, which is on a large lake, with her mother Helen, father Martin, and brother Emmett. They have a comfortable existence, as Martin is the town's pharmacist, and Kit's best friend Clio is the daughter of Martin's best friend, the town doctor Peter Kelly. In such a small town, everyone knows everyone else's business, and Kit's mother is often the stuff of gossip, seeming too glamorous and too out of step for the small town. When Helen suddenly disappears one night, Kit discovers a note left for Martin and burns it, assuming it's a suicide note and her mother will never be able to be buried in consecrated ground.
This one night sets off a chain of events for both Kit and Helen that change both their lives. Helen, as it turns out, has run off with her ex-lover, and Kit must muddle through her adolescence without a mother. Through a roundabout mail system utilizing the town hermit, Sister Madeleine, a presumed nun with questionable religious ties, Helen strikes up a relationship with Kit by pretending to be an old friend of herself. As the years progress, Helen's relationship with the man she ran off with changes as Kit grows up. A fateful school trip to London changes the balance of everything, and Kit wonders if she isn't destined to follow in her mother's footsteps.
::: The Best of Binchy :::
Trying to sum up over 750 pages taking place over almost ten years in this book seems nearly impossible. Much like Circle of Friends, The Glass Lake deals with growing up in 1950s Ireland, a society that had no divorce, no birth control legally available, and a culture so interwoven with the Catholic Church that it was impossible to separate religion from anything else.
What makes The Glass Lake different than (and in some respects, better than) Circle of Friends is the dual plot; life in Lough Glass continues, virtually unchanged from year to year, while Helen has a completely new life in London, and becomes, both in name and in personality, a completely different person than she was as Helen McMahon.
Binchy has always been one of my favorite authors when it comes to character development, mainly because she doesn't shy away from taking years to fully develop the characters. While it's hard to deal with the initial shock of Helen's abandonment of her husband and children, as the years go by and you see her relationship with this man, enough information is given to the reader to be able to construct an understanding of how things must have been even before the novel begins.
I wish I knew how she does it, but Binchy is able to juggle more characters in a novel than you would think possible. In The Glass Lake, there are eventually three locations: Lough Glass, Dublin, and London, each with its own cast. Binchy is able to not only make each character recognizable, but provides enough development that it's easy for the reader to keep track of all these people, even when they cross over to another location and another group of people.
The Glass Lake is a rich and engrossing read, and it's a book I've gone back and reread more than once, just because I find it so fascinating to watch characters age and develop. Binchy does such a wonderful job with her novels set in small towns in that era in Ireland that it almost feels like coming home to read another set in a similar location, and this is definitely one of her best.