*** WARNING — POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD***
I don’t like using the term “chick-lit” (though it might apply here) and instead prefer to use the term “pastel fiction” … fiction which is soft, gentle, with beautiful prose that paints a nice picture for the reader. This book might typify the ‘pastel fiction’ label.
Siobhan Doyle has grown up under the care of her uncle, Keenan (‘Kee’). in rural Ireland. Her mother died in an IRA bombing and her father was out of the picture before she was born. Kee has been very protective of his beautiful niece, but when an American scholar, Tim Ferris, visits on his research trip studying Irish literature, Siobhan starts to realize that there’s more to life than uncle Kee.
Author Kathleen Anne Kenney does a very nice job of bringing the reader into rural Ireland and creates a village as idyllic as I’ve always imagined and hoped rural Ireland to be. The cast of characters inhabiting the village, whom Kenney shares with the reader, is small, even though Kee runs a small, local pub. But this works well – no need to clutter up the book with characters not necessary to the story!
The story…. In literature, there are four main types of narrative conflict: man against man; man against nature; man against self; and man against society. Sometimes we also consider: man against machine; and man against fate/supernatural. And while it’s true that such conflict can sometimes be internal, I’m going to add one more form, specific to ‘Pastel Lit’: man against his imagination.
What we have here is a ‘slice of life’ in a pretty setting. The most dramatic event in the book occurs in the Prologue. After that this becomes a ‘coming of age’ book for Siobhan. But Siobhan is a late bloomer. She is twenty-six at the start of the book (after the Prologue), working behind the bar of the pub. She’s an introvert – we’re told that straight up – but this coming of age story seems just a little odd, given her age. Keenan is not an over-bearing or cruel ‘parent’ to Siobhan. In fact he loves and adores her. Her friends love and adore her. The visiting American literature professor seems to love and adore her, but she’s confused about her feelings for him because she’s never had such feelings before.
Then she does something wrong. She lies about something to the American, and even though she’s knows it’s wrong, she can’t stop herself and she can’t admit it. Her reason for continuing the lie never quite rings true for me. Her brain is screaming at her to tell him the truth, “But what Tim did next chased all thought of caution away. He took both her hands in his and looked gravely down into her pale face.” For the rest of the book she imagines the worst because of the lie, and it eats away at her, and as though she were seventeen instead of twenty-seven wonders:
“…is it love? How can I know that? It’s so scary and confusing. I’ve never … done this before. How in the name of heaven do people know when they love someone?”
There is one source of dramatic conflict that has the potential to create some real tension, and Kenney does her best to build up this tension. Siobhan’s biological father gets in touch with her and requests a visit. Keenan begins to show some of the Irish fire in his blood at the prospect of seeing the man who impregnated his daughter and then abandoned the woman and child. And what of this father who is a stranger to his own family? What brings him out of the woodwork? What conflict will he bring to Siobhan’s life?
But this is Pastel Lit. Keenan is calmed and much too easily admits to selfishly holding on to Siobhan and Siobhan’s father loves and adores her and just wants her to know that he’ll be there for her from now on if she wants it.
One moment in the story came completely out of the blue. When Siobhan encounters two young women in a bookstore talking about a particular Irish poet that one of the girls just loves, but can’t figure out how to answer the teacher’s question about two particular poems. Siobhan instantly connects with the girls and helps them find the answer and she feels very good about herself and what she does. This will lead to a decision later in the book but the moment itself felt quite unnatural – enough so that I made a note in my book – “why is this here?”
And finally, even the resolution is too easy – soft and pastel. The conflict of how she imagines every terrible thing because of her lie is finally admitted, but even here she suggests a lie (“I wonder if I was wanting you to figure it out the whole time.”), and everyone – Tim, her friends – takes it all in stride, as if it wasn’t worth being conflicted about in the first place.
There is a market for chick-lit/Pastel Lit (my wife, for one) and those who enjoy the form will find Kenney’s writing easy to fall in to. She definitely defines her characters well and will make you believe you are in the beautiful Irish countryside. But I personally like a little more grit and conflict to move my fiction forward.
Looking for a good book? Girl on the Leeside by Kathleen Anne Kenney is a soft, easy to read tale of a twenty-something young Irish woman growing in to love and knowledge. It lacks some conflict/confrontation but offers a lovely diversion in a beautiful setting with a friendly cast of characters.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
In full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with the author.
* * * * * *
Girl on the Leeside
author: Kathleen Anne Kenney
publisher: Nan A. Talese
hardcover, 304 pages