Donít you hate it when authors write books with secondary characters who are obviously included to serve as bait for their upcoming sequels? Fortunately, Emilie Richards doesnít engage in that sleazy practice. When I read Whiskey Island three years ago, it didnít occur to me that a sequel might be in the offing. But whether Richards had planned The Parting Glass all along, or whether she realized over time that she had more stories to tell about these characters, she has crafted another rich novel that will satisfy both readers familiar with its predecessor and those who are new to the characters.
The novel starts in present-day Cleveland, where Megan Donaghue is preparing for her wedding to Niccolo Andreani. No-nonsense, hard-working Megan, who runs the family saloon, still canít believe that former priest Nick really loves her, but she is comforted by the reassurances of her sisters Casey and Peggy. The wedding itself is memorable; the day starts with a tree falling on Nickís car and becomes more turbulent from there. Once the honeymoon is over, Megan is dismayed to find that she rarely sees her husband, who is almost frantically busy with the program he runs for troubled adolescents and with other responsibilities he adopts after the weddingís dramatic events. Megan finds herself drifting apart from Nick and worries that he regrets their marriage.
Meanwhile, youngest sister Peggy has accepted an invitation to visit Irene Tierney, an elderly relative in Ireland who has located the Donaghues through Internet research. A single mother of an autistic toddler, Peggy has dropped out of medical school to care for her son. She hopes that, when she is not helping the ailing Irene, she will have the time to work closely with Kieran and encourage him to reach whatever developmental milestones are in his limited grasp. Her arrival is met with open arms from everyone except Finn OíMalley, Ireneís doctor, who has closed himself off from most human contact ever since he lost almost everyone dear to him. If there was ever a tortured hero with a good reason for his vow to never love again, itís Finn, but his reluctant involvement with Peggy and Kieran tests the strength of the walls he has erected.
Woven into the saga of the Donaghue sisters are flashbacks to the story of Ireneís father, Liam Tierney, who emigrated from Ireland to Cleveland in the 1920ís. Through the sistersí research and Ireneís own memories a portrait emerges of a fascinating flawed hero who is forced to make difficult choices to support the family that is especially precious to him because he grew up without one. Liam forges an unusual bond with another Irishman on the opposite side of the law, and the two menís complex relationship is arguably the most compelling aspect of the novel.
Some authors are known for their plot-driven novels, while others rely more on the strength of their characters. Emilie Richard is a remarkable author because she is skilled in both areas. I donít know anyone else who could combine natural disasters, autism, bootlegging, Irish nationalism and visionary miracles in the same story, but Richards makes sure the reader is always engaged and enlightened but never overwhelmed or confused. Without preaching, she explores issues of faith, including religionís relevance in modern times. I also admire her portrayal of Ireland; while she has an obvious affection for the country, she doesnít idealize it. She lets the land and its inhabitantsí natural charms speak for themselves without adding any extraneous blarney.
The novelís two contemporary couples - Megan and Nick, Peggy and Finn - are engaging characters, even though they are far from perfect. Megan, in fact, approaches whininess a few times. Only my knowledge of the strength she demonstrated in Whiskey Island kept me from finding her annoying. At age 23, Peggy is a little younger than I like my heroines, but her experiences raising a special needs child have made her mature beyond her years. Both Nick and Finn are troubled but ultimately heroic. Finnís struggle is more poignant because he has so much more to overcome, but Nick has the edge in pure sexiness.
Intriguing characters, colorful settings, surprising plot developments, both tragic and blissful romances - what else do you need to know? Reading an Emilie Richards book is a good way to reward yourself for surviving a long, difficult day. Along with Deborah Smith, sheís simply one of the best storytellers in todayís Womenís Fiction.