This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.Minding Frankie is really a mixed bag. On one hand it follows a character that many books I read don’t bother with: an older female. This character, Emily, exerts her powers in distinctly feminine ways without tying herself to the kitchen and her pus...more Minding Frankie is really a mixed bag. On one hand it follows a character that many books I read don’t bother with: an older female. This character, Emily, exerts her powers in distinctly feminine ways without tying herself to the kitchen and her pushes help to heal a household and make effects on the community at large in such a touching way with thanks to the skills of the writer. It handles religion intelligently in that the characters have some but the readers aren’t lectured on the author’s. On the other hand, Maeve Binchy’s refusal to describe characters beyond giving a few of them hair colour leaves me to conclude, in the same way that I concluded Ms. Binchy was a teacher because Emily was, that Emily is overweight with short brown/blonde hair, green eyes with arched eyebrows and the starting of a double chin, much the same as the author’s portrait on the back of the book. Emily is not a full blown Mary Sue, she can be genuinely likeable a lot of the time depending on your mind set, and her role tapers off as the plot continues. But the moments she does take over are unforgivable.
Though this book starts off extremely promising in Binchy’s decision to discuss death, alcoholism, child-rearing and isolation it often takes the easy road and skips the hardest scenes and tells us about them second hand. For instance, if you think that we the readers should get to see the characters struggle with the first night that Frankie, the baby who the book was named after, comes home from the hospital then you don’t subscribe to Binchy’s writing style. If you don’t want to have a point of view paragraph or two about the man diagnosed with lung cancer and six months to live you Binchy is the author for you. He moves from zero into acceptance and stays there. This is especially sad because though this man is one of the major supporting cast and pages and pages are dedicated to him, his family and his funeral it’s not once stated that he smokes. Smoking doesn’t equal instant lung cancer and neither does lung cancer only lead to smoking but I would have a host of non-acceptance feelings if I’d never touched cigarettes and still been diagnosed with lung cancer. Binchy really should invest in a better editor because omissions like this run right through the 400+ page book.
Noel’s relapses do get attention but can be oddly cartoonish as demonstrated by this exchange:
Noel: ‘From tomorrow on it will be back just the same as it [Noel’s sobriety] was up to now.’
‘What do you mean tomorrow? What’s wrong with today?’ Malachy asked.
‘Well tomorrow, fresh start and everything.’
‘Today fresh start and everything,’ Malachy said.
‘But just a couple of vodkas to straighten me up and then we can start with a clean slate?’ Noel was almost begging now.
‘Grow up, Noel, Malachy said. – chpt 7
Grow up indeed Noel. Maybe Binchy has heard someone actually say something like this in this situation but it rings childish and simplistic. Noel only relapses when extremely stressed and though we do get a short paragraph about his cravings at the start of the book we learn none of his coping mechanisms. We are constantly told Noel goes to AA but are barely given a peek at his first AA. Binchy brings up his potential for alcoholism related impotence yet we’re never told if Noel actually does suffer it.
Other difficult issues are fully ignored such as Stella’s maternal smoking. I’m not saying that everything that can go wrong must go wrong but Binchy does not seem to have even the most passing knowledge that maternal smoking can effect a foetus which is odd considering that Frankie’s mother is dying of lung cancer. Again and again the opportunity to raise the issue that Frankie could have suffered premature birth low birth weight, asthma, addiction and withdrawal, possible retardation from the restricted oxygen supply etc when everyone from the priest is smuggling Stella cigarettes and she is, you know, dying of lung cancer herself. I wasn’t sure if this was a lack of research into the author’s part. The fact that she understands that smoking=bad yet has not taken in any of the hundreds of antismoking campaigns directed at expectant mothers at first left me to conclude that Binchy is a fucking idiot. That said though, the plot is left intact and cancer is able to kill two characters, quite cleanly as plots go. Cancer is scary and fatal disease. You often don’t know you have it until it’s too late to do anything. That is all Binchy needs to tell this story and that’s all that you need to really know to enjoy it. It doesn’t distract from the real bitter sweetness that Binchy manages to evoke upon both characters’ deaths. There is scene, very close to the end that Binchy handles above averagely but I won’t spoil it for you.
The book is extremely repetitive and character development can move like treacle at times. Again and again Lisa goes out with Anton, hopes for more and is unsatisfied. Again and again she hates her rival in his affections and we learn that said rival has no idea what they’re doing. Again and again Moira embarrasses herself with her own abruptness and again and again all the other characters tell each other and us what a stuck up bitch she is. All the dysfunctional families, or which three are mentioned in detail, have emotionally absent, distracted mothers. They can’t be abusive or drug addicted or ill or having affairs. The fathers are similarly distant. They must only be absent. It gets boring when all the characters’ back stories start ending up the same.
We are often told in unneeded detail about the roster for who has Baby Frankie and about where Emily’s going though we rarely follow them. Baby Frankie becomes less of a baby and more as a prop as she gets wheeled from place to place and being well behaved. More time is spent on this her actually bonding with every other character. Her entire interactions with her grandparents is summed up in one or two scant paragraphs. In the same way Emily’s romance confuses the reader because we spend more time learning what Emily is cooking for her lover then giving lingering glances or affectionate hugs. When he proposed to her I was blown over by the fact that she had said yes. She’d never shown the readers any affection for him, romantic or otherwise, up until that point. I honestly thought she was just passing time with him as something to do and can’t imagine that they’d actually consummate their marriage considering that Binchy never bothered to build up any chemistry between them. But don’t worry, we know exactly what they have for dinner every time we’re with them. Yet again I bemoan the fact that Binchy doesn’t know a good editor when she sees one. It’s truly sad that someone wasn’t there to whisper in her ear that readers care more about the honeymoon than about Emily’s brilliant organisational skills in getting them there. Descriptions of clothes take up more time than character descriptions and one could excuse the fact that some of the girls working at the thrift shop. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that I have no mental image of Noel except that he’s in his late twenties or early thirties (maybe). At the very end of the book we find out that he doesn’t have dark eyes or high cheek bones which sucks because I actually decided to give him dark blue eyes in my head.
Emily comes to Dublin and within a few days of arrival helps Charles confess to the family that he has lost his job and Noel confess his alcoholism. Emily’s lively presence is needed in this world, especially for her ability to spot Noel’s alcoholism. As Stella goes to her death, it is not her the doctor thinks of. Neither is it his own wife who has just given birth, an hour ago, to a healthy baby boy. Nor is it any of his friends or family which he has known for years, not Noel who has turned his life around or his parents. No, in Stella’s last conscious moments it is Emily, who he’d only met some weeks ago, that fills his head with her liveliness. Jesus Binchy.
In Emily’s presence other characters become dimmer to justify their need of her in their lives. Charles bemoans the fact that she’s going back to America because Emily was always finding him new clients and remembering to segregate dogs of different sexes in case they might do something to annoy their owners greatly.
At the doctor’s practice they would miss her too. Nobody seemed to know exactly where to find this document or that. Emily was a reassuring presence. Everyone who worked there had her mobile number, but they had been told that she couldn’t be called for three weeks. As Declan Carroll said, it was unnerving, just like going off a high diving board, without Emily.
Who else would know all the things that Emily knew? The best bus route to the hospital, the address of the chiropodist that all the patients liked, the name of the pastoral carer in St Brigid’s? –chpt 10
Remember, this woman has been here for a year give or take or less. She tries to help but in that year a grown man with no mental retardation has lost the confidence to keep differently sexed dogs apart, staff don’t know how to file properly, including the referral records to the chiropodist and the contact details for hospital’s pastor, or even how to get to the hospital that they work at. That’s right, the people who go to work every day to the heart clinic on the hospital’s grounds don’t know how to get to the hospital.
But obviously Binchy is referring to the patients asking directions. She apparently then knows the best bus route from anywhere in Dublin to the hospital and can tailor her knowledge to the client. I have something like that and it’s called Trip Planner. If a client who’s booked an appointment at my hospital doesn’t know how to get there, I might consider opening it up for them. But only because I work at private and I have the time. It’s up to the patient to get to the hospital just like it’s up to them to get to everywhere else in their lives as functioning adults. In the same way if someone from work called me to ask me who the best chiropodist was I’d think they were retarded. I’d also think I was retarded because I’d given my number out. I do give my number to my work, you have to, but there’s a difference between giving your contact details to your boss and giving it to everyone on staff with the implication that they can use you and not their brains as the first point of reference.
And that’s where it gets dark, right there: no one seems to be missing Emily, just what she does for them. The book does sometimes dip its toe in insight:
Lisa wondered what it would be like to have a life like this-where everyone sort of depended on you but nobody actually loved you. - chpt 5
But this amounts to little. Emily is a Mary Sue but in a different way: instead of a teenage girl who is loved for no reason we have a middle aged woman who is needed by everyone. This woman, thiks Binchy, will never be passed over, will never be forgotten. Emily is a wonder woman with her boundless energy and an emotional genius in her insights into others. She pays lip service to them having to learn to live without her but then she does things like giving out her number and letting people know they can call her if anything goes wrong. But it gets creepy quickly because everybody needs Emily. The author tries to give Emily character development too. She does many things, even marriage, though that has little effect on her. Her best friend Betsy notes that there’s an amazing change in Emily from introvert to extravert but what Emily states about herself, which I take to be true, directly contradicts that. From the very start, as soon as Emily quit her job as an art teacher because they kept her in the back filing papers she started to acquire skills and decided to go out and find her roots. At no point does she ever show timidness or uncertainty. Her brief dabbling into outrage becomes a misunderstood cop out.
It’s a small world in Minding Frankie. Apparently there are only three restaurants in all of Dublin. Characters who have never met Anton and have no stakes in his restaurant are still only allowed, mind bogglingly, to choose between his and his rival for where to go for dinner yet apparently his restaurant is still struggling. Where other writers find pride in widening their world with as few strokes as possible Binchy takes a perverse delight in making hers as small as possible. It gets to eye-rolling levels of confining when of course the police sergeant’s wife is Muttie’s nurse as almost no character mentioned by name can somehow not be connected to someone else. It depends on your own personality whether or not you find Clara hooking up her daughter with her best friend’s son creepy or sweet. It didn’t sit well with me for reasons I can’t explain but I forgive them because that’s the only chance at a date in this tiny, tiny world.
There is a huge lack of growth for the majority of characters yet the book doesn’t direct the reader to see that as a bad thing. Noel’s entire character development is over by the first quarter of the book. I suggest you not bother with Clara whose character development goes from a tough old bird with a heart and a mum, who’s sleeping with a man she’ so so about to a tough old bird with a heart and a mum, who’s moving in with the man she’s so so about because Binchy refuses to build up any sexual chemistry or romantic love between any of the characters (except with Lisa and Anton but that’s the only basis of their relationship). Which is odd because she seems to be able to talk frankly about sex. Baby Frankie is not a real child but due to her young age, merely a prop to be wheeled from place to place. In fact no one at the heart clinic has any kind or development though one does finally have a baby after numerous miscarriages.
The book does take some unexpected turns. Two characters who by all romantic convention should hook up don’t. A character who is set up to deserve a happy ending doesn’t get one.
The designated villain of the book, Moira the social worker, was handled unfairly in my opinion. Moira is a shell of woman from a broken family. She has no friends to speak of. SPOILERS. Some may say that her happy ending was subtle but her stepmother’s change of heart simply seemed out of the blue and didn’t reflect Moira’s actions. By the end of the novel the colleagues she’s worked for months with have no warmth for her, and in fact state jokingly that they’d never invite her to a party, though do praise her skills at doing her job. The tentative, one-sided friendship that she was starting to build with another main character crumbled before it could get off the ground with limited growth for Moira, a character that Binchy tries to paint as sympathetic. Though perhaps realistic, this was made grating by the repetition of how horrible she was by characters that I liked nowhere near as much. Moira is frowned upon for telling another character that she knows a friend of his through her work as a social worker. Yet it’s okay for a doctor to pronounce dead a man who he considers family. I’m not even going into the fact that all the good characterstry to hide Noel’s relapses from the stuck up bitch.
After all that, if you’re wondering why I didn’t give this book a lower rating, it’s because Binchy is a rather good writer in that she has an amazing ability to insert warmth into the story. It’s an easy read if you don’t think about it too hard.
Short recommendation: Buy this book if you want a warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s an easy read and you don’t have to think too much. There’s one especially tear jerking scene early on where I did feel my eyes dampen and wasn’t ashamed to admit it.(less)