TownHouse, £6.99, ISBN 1-90-365-0631
Contemporary Fiction, 2004
Another year, another charity anthology, the same old deal. Irish Girls Are Back in Town, however, perplexes me. It’s supposed to be an anthology that will inspire warm fuzzy feelings in me so that I will pick up a pen and sign a check of a thousand pounds each to children charity organization Bernado’s and the Irish charity foundation the Society of St Vincent de Paul, right? But this anthology is packed with relentless misanthropic stories that will more likely inspire “Ah! People are horrible! Toss them all, I’m spending my money on chocolates instead!” sentiments. What gives?
The problem I have here is that most of the depressing gloom and doom in this anthology is gratuitous in nature. Deaths, adultery, and betrayals are introduced in some “twists” that add little to the stories. These twists come off as unthinking concessions to cynicism and other concepts considered cool in “serious” fiction. Rather paradoxically, there are some stories here that are more romantic than previous anthologies in this series, if readers don’t mind the eye-rolling twists involving deaths and diseases.
Morag Prunty kicks off the show with Spinning Sugar, an irritatingly condescending story where an overweight woman is shown the “light”: she won’t be eating so much if she takes time to savor her food. Which won’t be so bad a message if the man showing her the light is a rude, disagreeable anti-social baker who makes the chocolate cakes the woman is addicted to and spends the whole story mocking her weight and actions. The humor is very mean-spirited. Ms Prunty must have really believed the ridiculous hype that women’s fiction readers are rail-thin and sophisticated women working at magazines or she won’t be risking a lipocytic fatwa with this half-baked and utterly condescending story.
Martina Devlin’s At Least There’ll be Diamonds is about a gold-digger’s thoughts as she boards a flight to meet her latest rich lover in the Netherlands. Crystal Nolan is a totally self-absorbed greedy bitch so I really don’t know why I’m expected to care about what she thinks. I could be watching The Simple Life if I care. This story lacks the bitchy humor to make things worthwhile. I am caught off-guard by the twist (the only thing I enjoy about this story), although in introspection I should have seen it coming. The clues are all there.
Tina Reilly’s Part Time Lover is the only story that offers a glimpse into the gentler side of humanity. This story seems, at the surface, the story about a woman clinging to an affair with a married man while spurning the affections of a man who loves her, but as the story progresses, it is apparent that nothing is what it seems at first. The heroine is sympathetic and the ending is full of promises. I’m nearly thinking that people are alright again when I just have to turn the page and read the next story.
Clare Dowling’s Deep Throat is actually my favorite story of the lot. If it’s in another anthology, I would love it unreservedly. The story of a repressed Irish small town turned topsy-turvy when a couple subscribes to cable channel and the wife gets too fond of the porn channel, this story is a delicious, feminist middle finger to the hypocritical patriarchy of society. The men in this story are all about keeping the women “safe” (which means, of course, password-coding the porn channel so that only they, the men, can access it) but the women, once they realize that sex involves more than just ten minutes of the men getting their jollies off, won’t settle for second best any longer. In the context of this anthology, the unflattering portrayal of males is just another one of the many reasons Why People Suck According to This Book. But at least Clare Dowling’s gloomy outlook of people is relevant to her story.
Patricia Scanlan’s Façades tells the story of a downsized family that learn that so what if the husband is unemployed for more than a year, there are other people more miserable so they are happy in the end, yay! “My life is good because compared to yours, my life is better” isn’t what I’d call an affirmative and uplifting message for a Christmas story, of which this story tries to be.
Suzanne Higgins’s The Irish Girls Are Back in Town is a very romantic story, probably the most romantic of the lot, but it is also an overly sappy love story with “mainstream respectability” (meaning: the lovers die in the end – how postmodern!). I’ve seen this story once in a previous incarnation as The Bridges of Madison County and I wasn’t impressed then. I am not now. Sarah Webb’s How Emily Got Promoted is supposed to be funny. But the author’s attempt at one-liners isn’t working with me and the set-up of the story is clumsy and transparent. Forget how the heroine get her scoop and hence getting promoted to staff writer – Ms Webb needs to get that funny bone thing working first.
Una Branklin’s The Wake is a long, long, long tale of a woman who has a hard life only to die when life is getting better. Um, how inspiring. Hand me the turpentine can and I’ll take a long drink. Cecilia Ahern’s The Calling tells the story of a woman living in alone after the death of her husband. During a bingo game, she reminisces about the wonderful life she’s had with her roguish husband, but the story ends with her lamenting at his gravestone that she misses him and life as an old woman alone isn’t cutting it. If this is Ms Ahern’s way of manipulating me into feeling empathy for the senior citizens living off the charity of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, it’s not working. Call me a misanthrope but being gobsmacked in the face with an out-of-the-blue “Life sucks, oh, it sucks!” message has me thinking that it’ll be easier for the Society to send the lonely old ladies to Vegas instead. Blackjack sure beats bingo, after all.
Julie Parsons goes beyond the call of duty in You, Me and Tallisker, insulting fat women while writing about a woman’s dreams crumbling as her lover cheats on her with a fat woman. Ms Parsons seems to believe that her svelte readers must share her beliefs that a fat woman having an affair with a gorgeous hunk is a comedy of embarrassment, as there are enough “fat butt” jokes here (that aren’t even witty enough to be funny) to fill several volumes of The Big Book of Jennifer Lopez Butt Jokes. Joan O’Neill’s Blue Murder tries to be suspenseful in a Hitchcock-ian way, but it’s too short and hence underdeveloped for me to care. Ms O’Neill also cheats: her story doesn’t provide clues for me to mull over the ending. I’m left to use my imagination, but why should I waste it on this story when there’re hotties like Hugh Jackman around?
Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Flesh and Blood, on the other hand, tells the story of a heroine who survives a horrible childhood and abusive teenage relationships, getting me to care, only to then slap me with a “twist” that makes the heroine’s survival a complete mockery. The message seems to be: life sucks if you’re a woman. After clawing your way out of the heap, you’ll still find that life is just a huge middle finger poking between your eyes. The whole set-up leads me to believe that this is a “survival” story so the gratuitous concession to misanthropy and cynicism in that twist leaves me feeling completely cheated and taken for a ride by Ms Conlon-McKenna.
Annie Sparrow – whose last book of hers that I’ve read, Matchstick Love, has an ending that is illogically downbeat, especially for a book marketed as “romantic fiction” – presents Insight. It’s a nice story about a woman who learns that she’s dying and finally decides to do the things she’s always wanted before she dies. It will be a nice story if the story doesn’t have a huge unanswered question dangling unsatisfactorily and a happy ending spoiled by a deliberately pessimistic look at marriage.
Deirdre Purcell not unexpectedly contributes the most “literary” story, A Life of Two Halves, where Irish artist Pauline Bewick reminisces about her relationship with her mother Harry in a story based on the author’s interview with Ms Bewick. True to the philosophy of life sucks that this book is shoving down my throat, Harry turns on Ms Bewick in the end. Yes, not even our mothers are spared in this book’s circle of misanthropy. Mary Ryan’s First Love tells the story of a tomboy’s crush culminating in humiliation and ugly rivalry that sets her against her so-called friend. Not only mothers, but our daughters too. Good heavens.
Rosaleen Linehan adds the lecherous old man to the list of People Who Suck as Carrot for Breakfast (yes, it’s exactly what you are thinking) tells the story of a silly woman who realizes that her infatuation with an older celebrity blinds her to his lecherous nature. Catherine Foley’s Secret Letter Writers is more benign in that two girls write a silly advertisement looking for hot boys, put it in a bottle, and throw it into the sea, only to get a surprise response. All this is just a set-up for someone to die and the other person to realize how lacking she is in character when she reflects on this death. Gemma O’Connor’s Dinner with Annie and Àine Greaney’s The End (Of Their Affair) detail the ugly side of adultery that brings out the worst from the parties involved.
By the time I close this book, I really don’t know what to think. The introduction talks about the good things the charities represented by this anthology get up to and then I get an anthology where nearly every story focuses on unpleasant aspects of life in such focused and relentless single-minded determination that monotony soon sets in on this reader. Are the authors chained to the back of muddy tractors and dragged all the way to the office where the editor then whips them to force them to contribute to this anthology? I can’t think of any other reason as to why an anthology designed to inspire people into thinking good thoughts about our fellow man will be filled with so many pretentiously cynical and sometimes even outright cruel stories. Since most of the poor and depressed characters here would no doubt need or are already needing the help of the charities in question, it is as if the authors are mocking the people who will be receiving a chunk of the proceeds from this book’s sales. But what do I know, huh? Maybe the fans of post-modern “it ain’t real fiction until there’s death, disease, infidelity, or all three involved” fiction donate lots of money to charity.