Awry chronicler of small-town Irish life, Binchy concerns herself with people who dream small and dare not stray far from home. Like her recent The Lilac Bus, but much better, The Copper Beech—a reference to the tree in the school yard—is a series of interconnected stories about the citizens of a typical Midlands village she calls Shancarrig, in the '40s and '50s.
Everybody knows everybody's business in Shancarrig. It is common knowledge that the Dunnes are drunks, that Conor Ryan is ruled by his wife and that Miriam Murphy is a bit off her head. On second thought, some business is kept secret. No one knows, for example, about the strange relationship between the school's assistant teacher, Maddy Ross, and the young priest; nor are they aware of the passionate affair between the lady-killing nephew of the town solicitor and the wife of the town grocer. As in The Lilac Bus, a character who's part of the background in one story may step center stage in another, then slip back into the crowd. While Binchy is only moderately successful with her attempts at concluding her stories with O. Henry twists, on balance The Copper Beech is as soothing as a cup of tea. (Delacorte, $22.50)