Reviewed by Emma Crowley
It is the late 60 s in Tullamore, County Offaly, and life is full of exciting possibilities for Fiona Tracey, as she prepares to leave Ireland to work for a wealthy family in New York. Fiona s parents have the local shop and bar, and her younger sisters are already leading independent lives. Bridget is at a convent school preparing to be a nun and Angela has led a life of her own since she was hospitalised up in Dublin for years with childhood polio. Then, sudden tragedy forces Fiona to postpone her departure for New York. As her mother sinks into illness and depression, her responsibilities mount. When help is offered by her aunt and cousin, Fiona is mystified by her mother s animosity towards them. As summer approaches, an American architect, Michael O Sullivan, takes a room above the bar. Within a short time Fiona finds herself involved in an unexpected and passionate affair. Then, as a surprising incident threatens Bridget s vocation, Angela uncovers information which explodes old family secrets. Before Fiona can embark on an independent life again, perhaps in New York, she must find a new understanding of her family and of herself.
I always welcome a new release from Geraldine O'Neill as her books are warm, good old fashioned strong reads with a gorgeous story always at their centre. I've been a huge fan since book one and would particularly recommend the Tara trilogy. Geraldine sets the majority of her books in the 1960's in Ireland particularly in and around Tullamore, County Offaly where she is based herself. She has a great sense of the time and place and it comes across very well in all her books. When you pick up one of her stories you are instantly transported back in time to a very different Ireland to the one in which we live today. Even if you have never been to Ireland once you have read one of Geraldine's books you'll long to visit. Fans though have been kept waiting for over two years for this new book A Letter from America which has the most beautiful 60's inspired cover that immediately had me thinking just who is that girl and where will the final destination be for that suitcase?
Fiona Tracey has spent all her life in the village of Tullamore, her parents run the local bar/ grocery shop with a few rooms to let out if needed. In those days in Ireland the shop was often an extension of the pub offering a dual purpose of serving the community and creating business for the owners. Fiona has two younger sisters both now living away from home, Angela is 22 and working in Dublin in an office. She has had a tough childhood suffering from polio and therefore had to spend a considerable amount of time away from the family set up being treated. This absence has created a distance between herself and her mother and she feels visiting her parents can be a strain. Bridget is the youngest at 17 and away at school in a convent. What surprised me was that she was studying to become a nun and she showed such dedication and ambition. She knew she had chosen the right path even at such a young age but like her sister she is beginning to feel a disconnection with home as events are overtaking. It seems strange now for a girl of that age to choose that direction for her life but I suppose at the time it might have been quite common and a source of pride for the family.
In a way I felt sorry for Fiona she was the eldest yet still remained at home with her parents Seán and Nance helping to run the business. A girl who in my mind should either have been married to the man of her dreams or else out in the big wide world fulfilling her ambitions and aspirations. A letter from America arrives from Fiona's best friend Elizabeth who has good news, a position as a nanny with a wealthy family has become available and to top it all off it's where Elizabeth works. Fiona couldn't be more excited and feels her life may just be about to change. Little does she know life has other events in store and her hopes may just about to coming crashing down.
Fiona was a strong, brave character who to me got the raw deal throughout the entire book. You could see she really did have a bright, independent future ahead of her but tragedy strikes the family and her plans to travel to America are put on hold. What rotten luck for poor Fiona. Her sisters though younger were able to leave the family home but here was Fiona now 'chained ' a such to the family as her mother falls apart and retreats to the bedroom. I felt Nance for the majority of the book came across as selfish putting her own needs first and forgetting that her daughters had lives to led and rightly deserved too. I appreciate she had been through an awful tragedy that would affect her for some time but for the majority of the book she just continued to wallow in misery leaving Fiona to pick up the pieces and keep the business running. Everything Fiona had wished for was pushed aside and left on the backburner. It was obvious Bridget couldn't step in to help her but Angela could have put her bitterness aside (although I realise her reasons were certainly justified) and helped her family out at a time when togetherness and family spirit were needed the most.
The book to me really did slow down pace in the middle and the beginning of the end stages, there seemed to be plenty of repetition telling us of Fiona's daily routine and how her mother continued to stay in bed despite the doctor saying she was healing and needed to get up. I don't like saying this at one stage it did become a bit boring but finally the plot did pick up when a visitor from America arrives and begins to stir things up. Fiona finally got a bit more of a storyline and so too did Bridget and Angela. In fact the two younger sisters plot lines were far more interesting. Just when I thought the story was more or less wrapped a major surprise was revealed although I admit to having a sneaking suspicion at one particular point. This did explain an awful lot behind the actions of the characters but maybe just came that little too late.
This isn't my favourite book by Geraldine O'Neill and I reluctantly say that. It did highlight that secrets from the past will always affect us in the future and that the bonds families and sisters in particular have are very strong but can always be severely tested. But A Letter from America just lacked that little something for me in Geraldine's previous books, it is still worth a read but maybe for me just not the best from this author so far.
Many thanks to Poolbeg for the copy of A Letter to America to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.