May 6, 2005
quite hold together
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 lifes 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,
lifes pleasures are fewer. Her beloved father drinks too much,
her mother loves her younger brother more, and the world isnt
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, Binchys style wasnt 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 Muldoons Tea Room in Belfast. Business
isnt 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
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 cant eat
in her own home. The theme of unhappy relationships is played a little
too much in this story.
The Stanleys are the books 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. Its her fault, really.
She allowed Daniel to take over. The reader can empathize with Pennys
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 cant stay
away from the cheery cheesecake at Muldoons. (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 Goldsmiths
revenge is sweet mentality and succeeds. I found myself
flipping through pages to read more of Sadies story, then going
back to finish the book after I learned her fate.
Despite the novels underdeveloped subplots, I wasnt 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 readers attention in all of the confusion. I was never lost reading Owens story, but I wasnt enthralled, either. I loved Sadie; I could make do with Penny and Daniel, and found Brenda Browns 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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