Scarlet Feather (by Maeve Binchy)

While I found some of Maeve Binchy’s earlier novels a tad hard-going and somewhat bleak, I very much enjoyed the ones she wrote later in life. So I’ve counted them as some of my favourites, to be re-read regularly. I had ‘Scarlet Feather’ on my to-read-soon shelf for a while; my edition is a large hardback, which I was given for Christmas 2000. I prefer to read paperbacks in bed, but eventually decided that it was well overdue for a re-read; I have only previously read it once, in January 2001.

It’s a bit of a confusing novel at first, with quite a large cast of characters. I knew I needed to keep track of who was whom, as they would recur later in the book. More significantly, I remembered that a lot of the characters introduced in this novel would re-appear in later ones. So I determined to keep track. The main protagonists are Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather, good friends who met in catering college, and who have started a business providing meals for people in their own homes. Cathy is married to a lawyer called Neil, whose parents never approved of Cathy, and Tom is living with the glamorous Marcella, who hankers to be a model.

We also meet Cathy’s parents, Muttie and Lizzie, and Lizzie’s younger sister Geraldine, who has a string of male friends (all with wives of their own) and is quite close to Cathy. Then there’s Neil’s irresponsible uncle and aunt, who have a lazy and dishonest son Walter, and also some utterly delightful eight-year-old twins, Maud and Simon. And let’s not forget Shona, who evidently has secrets in her life, and who lives in the same block of flats as Geraldine, and James, a quiet, elderly man who lives on his own, and asks to take cookery lessons from Cathy and Tom.

It’s not often that I remember so many names and people; Maeve Binchy didn’t have quite the gift of characterisation that - for instance - Rosamunde Pilcher did, but she created some memorable and mostly likeable people in this book. Caricatured in some respects: Muttie spends his time at a betting shop, for instance, Neil is so driven that he can’t understand those who don’t support him in all he does; his mother Hannah is remarkably snooty and disdainful. But their quirks and the way they relate to people make them stand out so that it didn’t take me long to remember who is whom, and where the various connections take place.

The main plot involves the Scarlet Feather business, in new premises, determined to be successful. They don’t have much business, and then when things start to pick up, there’s a new set of problems. It’s so long since I read the book that, although I recalled one or two incidents as they occurred, and could see others coming, I couldn’t remember at all whether or not the business is able to stay afloat. And there are other subplots too - mostly various difficult relationships, and their outworkings, or otherwise.

The twins Maud and Simon provide some light relief, as they have a tendency to take everything literally and to ask very pointed questions at inappropriate times. But theirs is also a poignant story; with seriously neglectful parents, they are considered at risk, and feel themselves to be unwanted. Questions arise from this, and another subplot, as to whether it’s always best for children to be with their birth parents if at all possible. The issues of career vs home arise too, and the importance of real honesty - as opposed to limited truthfulness - within any intimate relationship.

By the time I was about halfway through I wanted to keep reading even when it wasn’t bedtime, and towards the end I could barely put it down. I’m now very much looking forward to re-reading Maeve Binchy’s other books that include the same characters, particularly the twins.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes Maeve Binchy’s novels, based as usual in Ireland, featuring a mixed bag of characters whose lives gradually intertwine and who, on the whole, care very much about each other.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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