Tara Road is a family saga set in Ireland with a cast of thousands – or that’s what it seems like, anyway. Those of you who like fairly long, involved stories will probably relish this book, but be warned: this is definitely not a comfortable read.
The story focuses on the life of Ria (Maria) Johnson. We first see her when she’s almost sixteen and about to get her first kiss, which she messes up rather hilariously by babbling about being born on the day of Clark Gable’s death. From there, we see Ria at various other important moments in her life, such as when she meets her best friend, Rosemary Ryan (an amazingly beautiful young woman with shark-like instincts and high ambitions), and later, Danny Lynch (an amazingly handsome young man with shark-like instincts and high ambitions), whom Ria eventually marries.
To all appearances, Ria’s marriage to Danny is almost fairy-tale perfection. Danny manages to buy a beautiful house on Tara Road, a suburb of Dublin that is rapidly becoming trendy. They have two wonderful children, Anne and Brian. Their large circle of friends and family make No. 16 Tara Road a large, if not central, part of their lives. Then one day Ria discovers that the perfect front is just that: a front. Faced with a crumbling marriage, a difficult teenage daughter and a very confused nine-year-old son, Ria finds unexpected escape when she arranges a house swap with Marilyn Vine, an American woman who is harboring a secret pain herself. Each of them agrees to stay at the other’s house for two months, both hoping to find a measure of healing across the Atlantic.
There are almost too many side plots to keep track of, featuring the aforementioned cast of thousands. There’s Nora, Ria’s mother, a regular dynamo of energy; Hilary, Ria’s pinchpenny sister; Orla King, a woman who has carried a torch for Danny from the very beginning and who pops up unexpectedly to cause trouble; Gertie, Ria’s friend with a violently abusive husband; Barney McCarthy, Danny’s boss; and assorted other characters too numerous to mention. They’re all tied to Ria and Danny in a complex web that Binchy brings together at the end of the book.
In general, the characters are well-developed. Ria is one of the nicest people you will encounter between the pages of any book, but towards the middle of the novel she is so clueless and clingy, it’s rather exasperating. Her lack of pride when it comes to Danny hits a raw nerve too; we all probably know someone a bit like Ria, a perfectly nice person who has been given a rather bad deal but refuses to retreat with dignity and acknowledge defeat. My personal favorite is Brian, Ria’s son. He steals many scenes by his wide-eyed, completely tactless observations, and he gets many of the best lines in the book.
Even the villains of the piece are shown as three-dimensional human beings. Danny isn’t just a selfish, amoral charmer; he sometimes displays a surprising amount of depth in the glimpses we get of the inner man. The coldest character is perhaps Rosemary, Ria’s best friend, and their relationship in this book is a testament to the adage “opposites attract” – as well as to Ria’s determined optimism about human nature. Probably one of the most refreshing aspects of the book is its acknowledgment that the most beautiful people aren’t always the good guys, contrary to what most of the mass media try to tell us.
The book is not without problems, however. Some sentences are punctuated oddly, and the author has a disconcerting habit of head-hopping and introducing completely irrelevant background to walk-on characters. The pacing is also a bit jerky; I lost track of the chronology at times, and had to re-read certain sections to make sure that the dates and years added up. Some events also stretched credulity. For example, Ria gets a temporary job while she’s in America for the house exchange, but applying for a work visa and getting it approved would have taken longer than her two-month stay itself. Other parts of the book are so vague that certain plot points become unconvincing.
Like earlier Binchy novels, bad things happen to good people, and lies and secrets are perpetuated till the end. I finished the book feeling mildly frustrated. Justice could have been better served, but in that way I suppose the book somewhat reflects reality. Overall, though, Tara Road has its moments, but Binchy has written better than this in the past.