books
May 6, 2005

 

Story doesn’t quite hold together
by Meredith Hines-Dochterman

Sitting on a rusted fire escape on a sunny afternoon, a library book in her lap and a chipped blue bowl filled with peppermint wafers at her feet, is what 11-year-old Francie Nolan enjoys most.

A poor girl growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1900s, Francie finds joy in life’s little pleasures — visiting the neighborhood library, Mass on Sunday mornings, listening to her father sing and dining on Jewish rye bread once a week. But as Francie grows older, life’s pleasures are fewer. Her beloved father drinks too much, her mother loves her younger brother more, and the world isn’t kind to a young girl struggling to find a piece of happiness.

I was drawn to The Tea House on Mulberry Street (Putnam, Hardcover 336 pages, 2005) by Sharon Owens for two reasons. The description on the inside flap hinted that the book would be an easy and entertaining read. And, being a huge Maeve Binchy fan, several of the cover blurbs compared Sharon Owens to Maeve Binchy

Unfortunately, Binchy’s style wasn’t there in Owens’ book. There were similarities — the Ireland setting and a large cast of characters whose lives intertwine. But while Binchy can weave a tale involving dozens of characters and never lose sight of the story, Owens’ attempt to do the same falls flat.

The story begins with Daniel and Penny Stanley, a married couple that own and operate Muldoon’s Tea Room in Belfast. Business isn’t great. Penny believes fixing up the place will bring on more customers but penny-pinching Daniel thinks the customers prefer tradition. Quickly, the reader knows something is not right with the Stanley marriage.

The tearoom is the common thread between the Stanleys and the remaining characters in Owens‚ story — and a thin thread at best. Owens tries to keep the story flowing, but with so many people and so many subplots, it unravels often.

Brenda Brown is a frequent customer. The stereotypical struggling artist, she orders little, and spends most of her time writing love letters to Nicolas Cage. The Crawley twins, Alice and Beatrice, also are regulars. Self-proclaimed do-gooders, the pair spend their time looking down at everyone else in town. Clare Fitzgerald is a successful New York magazine publisher returning to Ireland for a story, but pining for her long-lost love. Henry Blackstaff, a lonely bookseller in an unhappy marriage, frequents the tea shop for homemade meals, while Sadie Smith, the overweight and unappreciated wife of Arnold Smith, stops by often to enjoy the food she loves but can’t eat in her own home. The theme of unhappy relationships is played a little too much in this story.

The Stanleys are the book’s main focus. They are supposed to be the characters that draw the reader in, with everyone else filling the supporting role. Penny did stir empathy. The tearoom is hers, once owned by her father and given to Penny and Daniel as a wedding present; but she has no control over it. It’s her fault, really. She allowed Daniel to take over. The reader can empathize with Penny’s frustration when Daniel reads cookbooks in bed and treats his wife like a hired — but unpaid — hand. But like any therapist will tell you, marriage is a two-way street and neither one should shoulder all of the blame for their 17-year-old unhappy unity.

When Penny decides enough is enough and sets out to enjoy life more, I cheered her although her actions were a bit childish. The fact that the book ends with the Stanleys happy and head-over-heels in love with each other is unbelievable. Couples can rediscover each other after rough times and go on to live a wonderful life together, but never as quickly as Owens writes, even in a work of fiction.

The character that had me enthralled was Sadie Smith. Overweight and constantly berating herself and her figure, Sadie can’t stay away from the cheery cheesecake at Muldoon’s. (the recipe is at the end of the book if you want to try it). Her husband is cheating on her, her children never call, and she is stuck at home caring for her ungrateful in-laws. Yet again we have another female character that is treated like a maid, not a wife. And Sadie, like Penny, decides it is time for things to change, but goes about altering her life in a much more realistic and entertaining manner. This includes ruining her husband, both professionally and financially. It is with Sadie that Owens injects a little of late author Olivia Goldsmith’s “revenge is sweet” mentality and succeeds. I found myself flipping through pages to read more of Sadie’s story, then going back to finish the book after I learned her fate.

Despite the novel’s underdeveloped subplots, I wasn’t disappointed with the time spent. The easy and entertaining read part held. However, maybe first-time novelist Owens would find success if she focused on the proverbial "less is more" belief. Few authors can write novels that encompass many characters, tell a dozen stories, and keep a reader’s attention in all of the confusion. I was never lost reading Owens’ story, but I wasn’t enthralled, either. I loved Sadie; I could make do with Penny and Daniel, and found Brenda Brown’s fan letters a comedic relief, although she was a bit drab. The rest of the cast, however, should have dined elsewhere.

Meredith Hines-Dochterman can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.


              
              
                 

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