How about twice?

I’m reviewing the book Once in a Lifetime, by Cathy Kelly. I’m not sure why, because I’m about to pan it. But stick with me, you may find it of interest.

This book was a failure that had all the advantages to be a success.
I have the feeling Cathy Kelly aspires to tell stories like those of Maeve Binchy, and she certainly had all the Binchy elements here: An interesting locale, a bevy of memorable characters, and some life decisions that needed to be resolved. And it came so close in many respects, but in others was a huge disappointment.

KellyThe book is the story of various people who are most of them somehow related to a wonderful department store in Ardagh, Ireland called Kenny’s, the epitome of all things elegant and unique contained within its stalwart Edwardian exterior. And yet, instead of beginning with the store, the book first starts the narrative with a rambling description of the character Star Bluestone, a witchy woman with special powers who lives a happy single life as a hermit in a cottage and weaves beautiful tapestries that oh, here’s the connection, she sells at Kenny’s.

The book should have begun by being firmly focused on the store and its owner, because he is pivotal, and the store turns out to be the connecting element for virtually all of the characters. And once she gets to it, Kelly tells just enough about it so that you are thoroughly enamored of it and wish you could shop there; but then neglects to give it that Binchy feel of daily involvement that would have made it a true vehicle. Kenny’s Department Store could have served as the foil to showcase all its characters in the same way that Binchy’s The Evening Class used the night school to examine the lives and secret goals of all the folks who were enrolled in its beginning Italian class; but Kenny’s ultimately took a back seat. It came and went in importance, and although the story wraps up with a Kenny’s narrative, it disappeared for far too much of the book to be the sustaining element.

Likewise, in some ways Kelly is a master at characterization, and yet I felt like, in the end, her characters failed to hold the line. The personality and presence she developed for TV reporter Ingrid Fitzgerald meant that Ingrid simply would not have reacted to things the way she did in the end, I don’t care how soothed she was by the book’s airy-fairy mystical witch woman who seemed to have the solutions to many of the characters’ problems. Similarly, if this person was to be the catalyst for so much action, then she, like Kenny’s, should have been far more prominent throughout the story, instead of in bits and bobs here and there. She has the “Star” role as the opening character and then disappears for most of the book. As for the rest of the ensemble, I sincerely liked Charlotte (Charlie) and Natalie, David Kenny, and even the subsidiary characters Dara, Molly and Ethan, and Ingrid’s best friend whose name I am blanking on; but their stories were so uneven in length and detail that the reader got confused as to where the book was going and what would end up being significant. Tangents abounded.

One additional disappointment was that Kelly gives a big promise of treating her women like people, and then succumbs, near the end of the book, to what I would consider rank misogyny. One goes completely out of character to forgive the unforgiveable; another (a successful and self-sufficient businesswoman) acts like a giddy schoolgirl and embraces a “last chance” romance with a younger man (all of which was fine), whereupon her friends observe that “he’s just the type of strong man she needs.” What?! That is not fine.

Finally, what did the book in for me was its cover and its title. “Once in a Lifetime” is so vague as to be insulting to a book as specific as this one was; I don’t even have a clue to what it refers in this story! And where in the world did that picture of a girl on a swing come from? No one in the book ever frequents a playground, or gets on a swing, or feels as happy and jubilant about it as this pictured stranger apparently does. What the hell, publishers? While I was ultimately able to read the book for its own merits (which, despite my negative review, were many), the cover was so misleading that it took me twice as long to get into the story, which wasn’t following the lead that the cover gave it. It’s a relationship book masquerading as chick lit.

KennysI don’t usually even review books that I didn’t enjoy, but I was so frustrated with this one that I had to vent. The ideas, the setting, the characters, the language were all there, but it just didn’t gel. I would love to see Kelly do a rewrite of this book, reign in some of her characters (enough about Charlie’s mother, already!) and expand the others, connect them all more closely with the store that brings them together, and change the title and cover to something reflective of all that (like this one!).

I doubt that would ever happen, but that is my wish, because this book DESERVED to be better.


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