Seeing Walter at every turn

I read A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy, aloud to my mother. During most of the reading – which I don’t do with much intensity or drama, meaning I tend to drone – my mom seemed to sleep. But she woke periodically to join me in speculating about What Would Happen Next. Binchy tells the story of the first week of operation of Stone House, an inn in the remote town of Stoneybridge on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Each chapter summarizes the life of one character present during the week, beginning with the innkeeper, Mrs. Chicky Starr.

Chicky’s is a modern-day “seduced-and-abandoned” story. She’s a local girl swept off her feet by a charming American visitor, Walter Starr. Walter takes her to New York and subsequently abandons her. But unlike the heroines of melodrama, Chicky rescues herself by working in a boarding house, eventually earning the money to come home and invest in an old house and transform it into an inn. She invents the myth of Walter, leading her family and friends to believe that she had a wonderful married life with him until his untimely, and completely fabricated, death.

I guess my mom and I have seen too many Lifetime movies. As we progressed through the story, we expected a dramatic reunification with Walter. We were certain that he would show up at the inn and spill the beans about Chicky’s duplicity. But Binchy is much more realistic than that. She shows us that secrets, even big ones, don’t have to stand in the way of success. And she reminds us that people leave our lives, whether we like it or not, never to return.

Instead of Walter, we encountered the ordinary but interesting people present at the inn during opening week. Some characters’ lives overlap, in both consequential and inconsequential ways, but each character is developed in a separate chapter, where we learn the character’s personal history, how the character comes to the inn, and what happens in the character’s life during that week in winter. Almost all the characters, even staff members Rigger and Orla, begin their trip to the inn reluctantly. They all have problems and secrets that prevent them from living life to its fullest. The week at the inn helps put some of those problems to rest; it changes some, but not all, lives. Binchy is careful to be true to life in that some people are unhappy when they arrive and they are still unhappy when they leave the seaside retreat.

My favorite story is of Winnie the potential bride and her future mother-in-law Lillian. The source of their rivalry, Teddy, pushes them together by bowing out of the vacation with Winnie and sending his mother in his place. Lillian insists on referring to Winnie as her “old friend” and talks as if Winnie is a matron of her own age. The ways the two women seek to get out of spending a week together at the remote seaside inn, their attitudes as they go into battle over Teddy, and the way in which they come to a truce are funny and endearing.

When we read this story, I asked my mother repeatedly which were her favorite characters. They continued to be the cat named Gloria and Walter, probably because I speculated about him often, expecting to see him at every turn in the story.

To be honest, my mom didn’t perk up until, in a story about Freda the librarian, Freda fields a request for a Zane Grey novel. My mom asked me if I remembered Jane Withersteen (the main character in Riders of the Purple Sage), and she pointed out to me that on a top shelf in the basement I could find her childhood collection of Zane Grey westerns. She also mentioned the fact that Owen Wister’s The Virginian sits on that very same shelf. She had a fall the day after we finished A Week in Winter and I will visit a nursing facility to read the next books with her. Let’s hope she has a roommate who likes westerns.

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