In her new novel, The Lace Makers of Glenmara, Heather Barbieri tells a story that many women tend to enjoy. It is the perseverance story—about a young, educated woman from middle class circumstances who overcomes heartbreak, betrayal and professional setback before finally achieving love (better than before) and the American dream (better than anything she could have imagined). This achievement comes with the help of a group of crafty women who have suffered betrayals and losses in their own rights. It's the tea-and-sympathy genre (think How to Make an American Quilt, Chocolat, The Friday Night Knitting Club, Calendar Girls, etc., etc.), heartwarming stories of women coming together to help other women—often by making use of their own industrious handiwork.
Barbieri's heroine, Kate Robinson, is a 26-year-old aspiring fashion designer who has just lost her boyfriend, Ethan, of five years. In a flashback, we're told how Ethan dumped Kate, leaving her for one of Kate's models, "a girl with black hair and pale skin and aquamarine eyes and a sizable trust fund." (The model also speaks five languages, plays the violin and fences at the championship level.) Adding insult to injury, Kate's debut line is not selling and her agent gives her the cold shoulder, flippantly telling her she needs to try something "high concept." A gal knows when it's time to high tail it out of Manhattan, so Kate takes off for Ireland, land of her ancestors, for an indefinite period. By doing so, she is fulfilling a promise to her mother, who succumbed to cancer before the time of the novel, leaving Kate at a loss for maternal comfort, just when she sorely needs it.
After almost a month in Ireland, Kate finds herself, quite by accident, in the tiny hamlet of Glenmara, a town known—if it's known at all—for its fishermen, its fire-and-brimstone parish priest and its lace. She's quickly adopted by Bernie, a widow still in mourning for her late husband, who convinces Kate to stay with her and join the lace-making group that regularly meets at her house. Each of the women in the group comes with her own personal tribulations: Aileen is estranged from her daugher; Moira is in denial about her abusive husband; Oona is in remission from breast cancer; Colleen is worried about her missing husband. Over tea and lace, the women share their worries with one another—and their skills with Kate. In their comforting presence, Kate extends her stay and eventually resurrects her love life (with a brooding artist named Sullivan Deane), as well as her flagging career by designing a line of exquisite lingerie with her new skills. Though the local priest objects to the outsider's influence on the lace-making ladies of Glenmara, the women themselves celebrate the opportunity to make something other than tea towels and doilies.
The problem with The Lace Makers of Glenmara is not that it's inspired by other novels with similar heroines and similar narrative arcs; the trouble is that Barbieri leans so heavily on the blueprint of the tea-and-sympathy novel that her own work fails to tell any story in its own right. As a result, each plot point is as predictably cloying as the next. Kate and Bernie form a mother-daughter bond immediately. Kate picks up the intricate skill of lacemaking (more or less) immediately. It takes Kate less than a few hundred words to fall in love with her brooding artist (later, they'll resolve their single conflict—over his dead fiancée—in just as few words). The priest who objects to Kate's presence is transferred out of town not long after his parishioners turn against his reactionary views. For a novel that seemingly wants to take us through a journey of perseverance, its narrative arc moves as swimmingly as the fish in the bay off Glenmara's coast.
In moments where there's a glimmer of originality—a rocky bay that's haunted by the ghosts of those who died in the famine, a plot point that revisits the 2005 terrorist attack in the London Underground—Barbieri shuffles along hastily without allowing any potential nuance to develop, giving the impression that she's more concerned with hitting her plot points than she is with actual storytelling.
In one moment, near the novel's halfway point, Kate reflects on her failed clothing line. She'd been "too busy reworking the concept, trying to get it right, until she gave up and hung the garments on the racks...in the end the pieces were only a poor imitation of the latest runway darling...What had she been thinking? Why hadn't she been true to her vision...?"
In light of Barbieri's own imitative tendency, the moment is sadly ironic. Snow in July (Soho Press 2005), Barbieri's debut novel about two sisters from Butte, exhibited a freshness that's nonexistent in this second work, leaving one to wonder if Barbieri herself became too busy "reworking a concept." Though The Lace Makers of Glenmara might remind us of other novels we've loved, it's a poor imitation best left on the shelf.
Heather Barbieri presents The Lace Makers of Glenmara at a luncheon at the Holiday Inn Downtown at the Park Saturday, Oct. 3, at 11:30 AM. $16 advance. Call Fact & Fiction 721-2881.