Setting her novel on the eve of the 2008 American presidential election, MacMahon pens a comforting tale filled with wit, wisdom, and a fair bit of melodrama, a rare panache that makes even the more serious events look amusing. Sketching her characters with a deep and intimate understanding, the author festoons them with peculiar quirks and eccentricities.
One does not have to dig too deep to understand the dilemma of Irish American banker Bruno Boylan. From the beginning of the tale, the reader is well aware that a singular event will disrupt his life. Bruno's body is out of whack and his spirit in turmoil after losing his job at Lehman Brothers, “that gloating display of global supremacy.” Like a guy who comes home to find that his house is burning down, Bruno
is in a sort of "waking coma."
On his way to research his family history in Dublin, Bruno flies across the Atlantic, filled with a giddy sense of elation that there is only a month to go until the US presidential election and the ascendancy of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Addie Murphy, caught up in her own head, walks the beaches and promenades of Dublin Bay with her dog, Lola. Addie’s love for Hugh, her disabled father, prevents her from moving forward with regard to her need for companionship. Even though Hugh occupies a special place in her heart beyond reason or logic, her feelings at her situation are complex and tied to a certain bitterness and regret.
Almost at once, Bruno takes an instant liking to Addie
with her cheerful face such that a “small child would draw.” His blood races through his veins. Addie is initially reluctant to get involved because she feels just too battered by life: “all he knows of me is a tatty basement, the little dog, and an injured father lurking upstairs.” But gradually, in Bruno’s presence, she begins to feel the weight lifting off her.
They spend long evenings at each other’s side, and Addie is soon basking in the smell of Bruno, “so familiar already,” while falling for his “knowing smile.”
MacMahon writes these romantic passages with a brilliant, fluid intensity, instantly moving us through the incidents and thoughts of her cast. Outlining all of their respective histories, her main focus is Addie, her heart so weighed down with a “heavy sludge of guilt,”
but she also emphases the dilemmas of Hugh. Once a successful doctor, Hugh’s innate authority is unable to protect him from a series of specific allegations. Forced to defend himself in some detail, Hugh can’t remember when he last felt so disheartened.
Drowning his sorrows in whiskey, he can’t grasp why he doesn't connect anymore with Addie or his other daughter, Della, who adds her own story to the narrative.
Addie silently dreads Bruno’s return to America in less than a month. “There’s no future in it and he'll go back home,” she tells herself. Still, with just weeks into Christmas, Addie and Bruno are soon alive to love's possibilites. That Addie might put all of her past doubts behind her and that Bruno might decide to stay in Ireland and indeed become a writer instills in both of them the brightness of optimism along with the possibility of finding true happiness.
While the somber payoff at story’s end feels a bit too manipulative to be believable,
it is balanced by the genuinely charming prose that highlights the needs of two desperate people who seem to have run out of viable alternatives. With Addie’s warm voice always at its core, the final pages are a lovely circle which cajoles and moves both us and Bruno towards a genuine and vital sense of hope and fulfillment.