Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
Presenting a collection of disparate, unrelated characters and slowly drawing them together as if by magnetic force – typically through a single tragic or unfortunate event – is a vaunted storytelling technique, as tricky to pull off as it is tempting to an ambitious novelist or screenwriter.
Good cinematic examples of this type are the 1991 Steve Martin / Kevin Kline film Grand Canyon, and the 2004 Oscar-winner for Best Picture, Crash. In one of the finer novels of 2009, Hearts and Minds, Amanda Craig linked the lives of five people in contemporary London in a series of absorbing but not implausible events.
Regrettably, the enervated Minding Frankie is not in this league. It’s a rare misstep from a scorchingly successful author; translated into 30 languages, Maeve Binchy’s back catalogue of more than a dozen novels has sold 40 million copies, and the cover of Minding Frankie touts her as the ‘world’s favourite storyteller’ (how this has been determined is not disclosed).
The titular Frankie is a baby, born early in the novel to terminally ill Stella, who dies shortly after her birth, and ne’er-do-well alcoholic Noel, who lives with his parents, works in a dead-end job and is gobsmacked to the point of paralysis by the emergence of a baby from a single, drunken sexual encounter after a night of line-dancing.
As Noel reels, his American cousin Emily arrives for a visit, moving in with Noel and his parents Josie and Charles and swiftly proving to be in possession of a degree of level-headedness against which neither addiction nor an unplanned baby is any match.
In a nearby neighbourhood, Lisa has reached the end of her tether in a loveless family home. Chance encounters – a hallmark of Minding Frankie – see her embark on a one-sided relationship with a self-obsessed restaurant owner, and, more fruitfully, cohabit with Noel and baby Frankie, for whom she becomes a primary caregiver.
To ratchet up the dramatic tension, Binchy introduces Moira, a pinched and emotionally starved social worker determined to save Frankie from this mélange of semi-parents – and newly sober Noel doesn’t help matters by teetering on his wagon when faced with any threat to the stability of family life.
A host of supporting characters rounds out the somewhat colourless picture, and in fact, character is precisely what Minding Frankie is most lacking. The baby herself is a mere cipher – she could just as well be a puppy or a temperamental house-plant for all the emotional engagement Binchy has the adults demonstrate towards her. No character is more than two-dimensional, and several aren’t even that.
Where Binchy does display her trademark warmth and shine is in the slow journey to self-awareness undertaken by each major character and achieved with the help of others. Each is in some way crippled or damaged by their past and an emotional deprivation of sorts, and only by letting others in – with wee Frankie as the conduit – can they become fulfilled human beings.
It is as predictable as it sounds, but the Binchyian flavour helps – though Minding Frankie is far from her best work, and constant readers will expect more. The ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ truism can make for fine fiction. Regrettably, this isn’t it.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones