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This is the story of a restaurant, which started as a rather seedy café, until it was bought by an entrepreneur called Quentin Barry. After that, it was managed under the name of 'Quentins' by Patrick, an excellent chef, and his wife Brenda. But it's also the story of Ella Brady. We meet her briefly in the opening paragraphs of the book, at the age of six, the first time she is taken to Quentins. She is with her parents: the respectable Mr Brady, who knows exactly how many minutes it takes to walk to his office each day, and the efficient Mrs Brady, who works for a solicitor in the mornings, and is always ready to greet Ella after school. They are a traditional, caring family who live in comfort, and Ella is the envy of her friends. As she grows up, she does occasionally wonder if her parents are almost too good to be true; gradually she realises that she is the main focus of their lives, in a somewhat unhealthy way. However she is basically a secure, contented person, and mostly accepts her good fortune. Within the first chapter of the book, Ella experiments with boyfriends, reaches her twenties, sees a close friend married, becomes a teacher, and moves to a flat of her own - while continuing to see her parents frequently. She also becomes a regular visitor at Quentins. At the end of the chapter, she meets Don Richardson, a well-known financial consultant, and is immediately attracted to him. To Ella's surprise, Don appears to be equally attracted to her. He seems very open, informing her that he is in a dead marriage, leading quite a separate life from his wife. Ella can't help wondering how dead his marriage really is, particularly when she sees him with his wife, but he tells her that he is deeply hurt by her suspicions. He takes Ella out a few times without attempting to be intimate, and they become good friends before they - inevitably, perhaps - decide to be lovers. Equally inevita
bly, Don turns out to be as untrustworthy as we, the readers, know he must be. Ella is devastated, as are various people who put their trust in him financially. His downfall is dramatic, and surprisingly early in the book. Even when faced with the truth, Ella cannot quite stop trusting him and hoping that he will return with an apology, or at least an explanation which will in some way redeem him. Friends rally round, and in a general brainstorming session about a film competition, Ella suggests making a documentary about Quentins. At this point the story flashes back to introduce Quentin himself, and in narrative form we learn much of what such a documentary would reveal: his early childhood, the way he branches away from his parents' expectations for him, how he manages to buy the restaurant, and how he meets Patrick and Brenda who take on the management. Then there are a series of short cameos about different people who have been to Quentins over the years. Just over half-way through the book, Ella goes to New York to meet Derry King, the ex-patriate Irishman who is proposing to sponsor the documentary. *********************************************** That's the barest outline of the first half of Maeve Binchy's most recent book. I nearly didn't buy it at all, having read a review (probably on Amazon) which focussed on the snapshot stories of visitors to Quentins, and didn't mention the main plotline involving Ella. Then I saw it in a charity shop for £1 and decided it would probably be a good book for a long day travelling, on planes and in airports. I didn't expect a whole lot from it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was an enjoyable read - not particularly memorable, not as deep as some of her other, longer books, but nonetheless one to keep and re-read in future. * Characters * I found Ella immediately likeable. I was rooting for her to stop trustin
g Don Richardson, seeing him for the villain that he so obviously was. At the same time, I could understand her being taken in by his apparent frankness and general charm. Her pleasant childhood had not begun to prepare her for the sheer viciousness of some unscrupulous people, and in being betrayed she lost a great deal of innocence, despite wanting to cling tenaciously to her belief in him. Don himself was something of a caricature, but then he needed to be for his rôle. Derry King, who becomes increasingly important in the second half of the book, was more realistic and believable. Quentin does not take a major part in the book, and yet he too is realistic. He's always there in the background, with a plotline all to himself which is gradually revealed, although with no great surprises. Patrick and Brenda, who run Quentins, seem remarkably flat to me. After a chapter which didn't mention them, I even found myself temporarily forgetting who Patrick was. Perhaps it's the typecast Irish name! Their disappointment at being childless is featured, and yet is not as moving as it might be, possibly because I don't find myself caring much about them. On the other hand, Patrick's younger brother, who goes by the unlikely nickname of Blouse, provides a delightful touch to the book: considered rather dull, even retarded as a child, he proves himself to be a reliable and willing worker. When he finally falls in love, he matures and develops in ways that almost seem too good to be true. Almost, but not quite. His rôle, too, becomes more significant throughout the book. I found other characters harder to remember: less rounded, and less distinct. I got confused between Ella's various friends at times, and had to skip back to see who was who; this might be partly attributable to the general overwhelm of travelling, but I've not experienced this depth of bewilderment when reading on aeroplanes
before. There were also small rôles for a few characters drawn from two of Maeve Binchy's previous books, in particular Tom, Cathy, and the twins Maud and Simon, from 'Scarlet Feather'. I found this to be a pleasant touch: they were likeable characters, and it felt a bit like catching up on news of old friends. However for someone who has not read 'Scarlet Feather', I think this could add extra complexity, and possibly some confusion. The twins, in particular, provide a little light relief in their endless questioning and naiveté, but don't really fit all that well with the general plot of the book, and might seem extraneous to someone who had not previously met them. * Setting * As with many of Maeve Binchy's books, this is mostly set in Dublin; indeed she takes the setting of another of her previous books, 'Tara Road', for Ella's parents' home. She writes confidently without an excess of detail about the surroundings, building up a realistic picture of a busy town which could have been almost anywhere; I only really remembered with a jolt that it wasn't in England when prices were mentioned in euros rather than pounds! * My opinion * Although I did enjoy this book, and will almost certainly read it again in a few years, it didn't feel to me like one of Maeve Binchy's best. It wasn't as long as the majority of her books, only about 400 pages in paperback, and yet it was more complicated than her other novels of this length. Ella is a delightful protagonist, and she certainly grows and develops through the book, but she's very much protected by her network of family and friends, even in her most painful moments. Perhaps she's basically too nice! I also felt as if there should really have been two books here: one about Ella, and one about Quentins. Typically for this author, there are many sub-plots interwoven throughout the boo
k, pulled together either by their relevance to Ella, or to the restaurant. Yet somehow there was no coherent whole. Even though the book begins and ends with Ella in Quentins, this feels slightly contrived to me. The documentary plot rather peters out after the interesting individual cameos, and I felt that those might better have been included in a book of short stories, akin to Maeve Binchy's stories based around the London underground. If the entire Quentins plot were removed, there would still be a good story (albeit rather short!) about Ella, and I think I'd have preferred this. All in all, though, a good light read with a satisfactory conclusion. * Details * Published in paperback by Orion, recommended price £6.99, but discounted at Amazon, and various shops (where it's stacked with popular fiction) for around £4.99.
Every table at Quentins restaurant has a thousand stories to tell: tales of love, betrayal and revenge. There has been hope and despair sitting in the chairs. The staff who come and go have stories of their own