This extremely well-written book won my mind, but never quite won my heart. Some AAR readers will definitely adore this book, but it’s hard to sum up the essence of Spellbound in a way that won’t produce misleading expectations: this is a book about Ireland that’s like no “Irish romance” I’ve ever seen, a subtle paranormal that is neither cute nor creepy. On first appearance, there are stock characters who prove to be anything but: you’ve met the village wise woman, the drunken father, and the grandmother who will do anything for custody before, but you’ve never seen them brought to life like this.
The story begins when Kerry Tierney, stranded on the island of Inishmore with no modern medical equipment, dies giving birth to her third child. Within two weeks her husband Danny has perished in a drunken boating accident, unable to bear his grief. Their three children need attention, and many loving adults are eager to give it to them: Sean O’Malley, Kerry’s twin brother, Molly Tierney, the younger sister that Danny never knew, and Molly’s mother Emma, to whom Danny and Kerry have officially bequeathed custody.
Though she was raised in America, Molly was born on Inishmore, and she has arranged to teach school on the island for a year to acquaint herself with her birthplace and with the father she never knew. When Emma left Inishmore she took baby Molly but young Danny refused to go and Patrick, his father, refused to give him up. Sean was raised on the island but has lived in the city as a successful playwright for many years; however, when the tragedy strikes, he moves back to the island to raise his nieces and nephew in the only home they’ve ever known.
The star of the book is really the island itself. This is not one of those Irish romances in which “American girl moves to Ireland, learns that all things American are materialistic and bad and all things Irish are pure and good.” Inishmore and its people are under the microscope here, and it’s an absolutely fascinating study. For example, we learn that the villagers are passionate about their children’s education, because education provides the best route off of the island, and the worst tragedy in the community is when someone who wants to leave is forced to stay for lack of opportunity. Living on Inishmore is more than an accident of birth, it’s a calling, and there is no ill will towards those who are born to leave.
On this hinges the biggest conflict for the romance: Molly and Sean are attracted to each other, but Sean is convinced that he will stay on the island the rest of his life while Molly will abandon it just as her mother did. Unfortunately, this conflict never quite rang true to me, because Sean himself hasn’t lived on the island in many years – I never thought his “island-er than thou” stance was convincing. They are both very loving people who keep the best interests of the children in mind at all times.
Molly and Sean’s relationship often takes a backseat to many secondary subplots involving a few too many viewpoint characters. The book is halfway between women’s fiction and romance, so many of the family subplots are as integral to the story as the romance. This always felt appropriate in the case of Danny and Kerry’s very believable children, somewhat less so with Molly’s alcoholic father. I found his redemption somewhat unconvincing and the forgiveness he received a bit glib, but the story is presented in an unusually even-handed manner and I believe that fans of recovery stories may enjoy it.
As much as I admired its quality, I never found my emotions fully engaged by the story – perhaps because it’s hard for me to relate to the aura of small-town stoicism that pervades the book, perhaps because the author has chosen not to overdramatize the tear-jerker potential of her story and I needed to be manipulated a little more. I don’t doubt that there is an audience for this book. Though the narrative voice is completely different, there was something about the benevolent but clear-eyed observations of a community of ordinary people that reminded me of Carla Kelly. To her fans, to readers who would like an “Irish” romance that digs much deeper than the top layer of shamrocks, and to anyone who is intrigued by the idea of a romance novel with a heart of anthropology, I definitely recommend this book.