Quentins is the name of a Dublin restaurant that has a tremendous effect on the lives of its staff and patrons. It would make sense that that would be the focus of a book named after it. But while Quentins the eatery does play a large part of the story, and occasionally steps to the forefront, the book’s protagonist is schoolteacher-turned-documentary-filmmaker Ella Brady.
Ella works at a small private school and leads a quiet life. That all changes the day she meets dashing businessman Don Richardson. She begins an affair with the married Don, who charms her friends and family and offers investment advice they all end up taking. But things soon go terribly wrong. Don flees the country with his family and a large chunk of his investors’ money. Ella’s father is ruined professionally, Ella loses her job, and her picture is splashed all over the front pages of the newspapers as Don’s lover.
She accepts the invitation of a college friend who is now a filmmaker to work for him. His company is searching for a documentary subject and Ella suggests Quentins, a restaurant she remembered fondly from her childhood which later became a meeting place for her and her best girlfriends. But as Ella works on the film, the scandal with Don continues and Ella is caught between several parties who are interested in information he left behind with her.
Quentins is told pleasantly enough, in a sweetly old-fashioned way, but it never really grabbed me. It wasn’t until Ella meets Don Richardson that I figured out why. Don tells Ella from the start that he is married and that if she wants to become involved with him, she will have to accept that. She agrees without hesitation. Most readers would probably want to understand why Ella has no problem agreeing to an affair with a married man who seems sleazy from the start. It would certainly help the reader feel some empathy for her with everything that happens later instead of thinking, “You idiot!” But Binchy offers no insight to what is going on in Ella’s head at this moment.
That holds true for nearly every moment the reader spends with Ella. There’s little psychological insight into who this woman is or why she makes the choices she does. We are shown everything she does, we know a great deal about her past and her family, yet there is not a trace of introspection or a hint of anything deeper than what she is doing on the surface. It requires more than knowing what a person is doing to know who they are, and the author holds the reader at a clear distance from Ella. Reading her story is much like observing a complete stranger from afar. Ella doesn’t have a distinctive enough personality to make her interesting. Worse, her story could not be more boring. It’s obvious Don is no good. It’s obvious things are going to go badly. Every twist and development that unfolds is so predictable, and without a good protagonist to empathize with, it’s difficult to become engaged in this particular story.
Quentins does have its saving grace, and that is the stories of the various people who are touched by their connection to the restaurant over the years. The book is divided into four parts. At the end of the first, second and third, Binchy breaks away from Ella to briefly share some of these stories. In less than ten pages each, entire lives and personalities are carved out in vignettes that are sweet, touching, charming, even moving at times. An outcast makes good. Mothers triumph over their ungrateful children. The arrogant get their comeuppance. Love is found in unexpected places. Perhaps because the stories are so short, the author wastes no time in helping the reader identify with these people. The characters are either fleshed out in a few quick strokes or their stories tap into such primal emotions that they’re instantly involving. Only the ultimate story of Quentin himself, which is far too trite, falls flat. The stories go by too fast. Then it’s back to the tedium of bland, boring Ella, whose story really isn’t any meatier than the vignettes, but is thirty times longer.
The trials of Ella may dominate Binchy’s book, but her storyline is not what remains memorable about the book. The personalities and tales of the supporting cast are what makes it. Had the author placed her focus where it should have been, Quentins could have been a real charmer. Instead it’s simply forgettable.