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(State Your Wish Three Times)
First time she saw it, the place was all in her head.
Made up. Dreamed up. Conjured up. Invented from necessity, much in the way a convict or a hostage or an inpatient imagines for sanity's sake a longed-for land of peaceful existence.
She wasn't in jail, or bound in a madman's cave, or bedridden in some cheerfully named long-term health care facility. She was simply in crisis. Though I guess I shouldn't use the word simply, because that squashes her situations and emotions down to pocket size. And what she had endured and how all of it left her feeling had the dimensions of one of those supertankers so mammoth that it can never come directly into port because no port anywhere in the world is huge enough. That's how enormously bad you can feel when the hand of fate suddenly decides your existence is a carnival game, and pays a buck to pitch a trio of baseballs at a pyramid of milk bottles representing your world. One. Two. Three in a row. Right on target and with speed worthy of a multimillion-dollar contract in the majors, there goes life as you know it.
Due to circumstances beyond your employer's control, you lose your job.
Due to circumstances beyond his SUV's controls, your husband loses his life.
Due to circumstances beyond anybody's control — because who was ever able to control her? — your daughter announces that the only parent who ever truly loved her is now gone, therefore she has become an orphan, good-bye, and she is lost as well.
Then comes far too much time and solitude in which to shuffle around a silent home trying to figure out the following: If I am not their employee anymore, if I am not his wife any longer, if I am not her mother, who am I?
A year and six months ago, in a very pointy sliver-span of two weeks, as the final leftover slice of her forty-third birthday cake sat still fresh in a triangular Tupperware vacuum, that trio of tragedies blindsided my friend Gina Stebbins. Hounded by reality each moment she was awake, she found rest only through a combination of five milligrams of Ambien from her GP and a trip to a place deep inside her imagination. A simple, peaceful, chiaroscuro-Thomas Kinkade-ish cottage by the sea was her destination. And if this smacked of the type of place to which every falling-apart woman ever featured on the Lifetime Channel has crawled for renewal, Gina couldn't have cared less. She'd felt a connection to the ocean and to cottages since childhood, when the first two weeks of every July found her and her parents up in New Hampshire, tucked into a rented green-and-white efficiency on K Street, a plastic sand pail's throw from the Coleman-cooler-paved sands of Hampton Beach.
So the ocean was where Gina imagined herself living when things in her head got to be too much. This particular ocean she thought of as being somewhere far away, at the edge of an unnamed hilly countryside washed the green of steamed asparagus. In the remote village sprouting from all that chlorophyll, a few cozy pastel-colored buildings standing shoulder to shoulder formed the uncomplicated heart. The soul of Gina's dream place was located just up the road, where waves the shade of iris petals unrolled like bolts of trader ship silk onto a smooth-stone beach, their unbroken rhythm matching the blessedly slowed-down breath of her newly re-created life. In her imaginings, Gina always began with a walk through the village, past the cottage, then down to the beach, believing that once she got to the sea, everything would begin to change for the better.
The second time she saw it was on newsprint. A few pages into the Sunday paper's fat travel section. In a full-page ad that, via antiquated pen-and-ink font, extended to her and all other prospective visitors a total of "One Hundred Thousand Welcomes!" Below that big tally was a color photo — of the very same village Gina had made up for herself when the fast and bruising tumble of her tragedies had begun. Amazingly, the picture bore all the correct details: single road, wide stream to one side, seven pastel buildings on the other, with hardly a gap between. There were three small, boxy cars parked along the curb, and crossing the bridge that spanned the foreground stream, a group of fit and backpacked walkers headed in the direction of the Mecca horizon, toward the green, the green — all that green painted across a sloping meadow that led to the hard amethyst line of the ocean.
This was the place in her head.
Imagine seeing a photo of something after knowing it only in your dreams. Not once had Gina given even a thought about its existence — that she might have lifted the location from somebody's travel album or the setting of a movie she'd long forgotten. So deeply familiar was the picture that at first it was a bit frightening for her to believe that this very village, this ocean could be out there in reality. If she were some kind of psychic, she might have handled this in stride. But Gina was like most of us mortals, and could not see into the future much beyond knowing there would be someone at the front door when the bell rang. So the photograph was a huge shock that had her setting down the travel section and slowly walking backward across the kitchen to stand at the counter and nervously jiggle the lever of her once busy four-slot toaster while she worked up the courage to return to the table to check if the image were still on the page. And when she did, it was. Was there, in front of her eyes, and, according to the ad copy, a mere three thousand miles from her home. "A World Away" is how that was put by the Tourist Board, which had recorded her dream place on film, had printed the picture where she could find it, and was inviting her there — at a preseason discount, yet, if she reserved a ticket within the next thirty days.
The third time she saw it, she stood on a hill three thousand miles from her home the midafternoon of the first day of the wildest thing she had ever done in her life. An action put into motion that Sunday two months before, when Gina had precisely pressed the digits for the 800 number and told the Tourist Board reservations specialist that she gladly would accept all those advertised welcomes — on the condition that the location of the village in the photograph be revealed. The reservations specialist said she would do her best, and then actually did, because the same day Gina received her plane ticket, she found in the mail a separate envelope bearing a map compliments of the Tourist Board, some member of which had taken the time to highlight in red marker the route from the airport to the coast and to the place in her head, the place in the photograph, a place bearing the house-pet name of Booley.
So Booley is what Gina stood above that May afternoon as the bus that had delivered her from the airport to an unmarked intersection of two lonely dirt roads fumed away, and after the full hour of pop music that had rained unabated from the ceiling speakers, she reveled in the silence. Now all was quiet as Gina looked down at the tiniest and most beauteous corner of the world, the one she believed held the great promise of being all she ever would need.
Others were of the mind-set that Gina needed something totally different. When she'd met with them to announce her plans to spend an undetermined amount of time in a village she'd spotted in the newspaper, Gina's puzzled circle of women friends had offered less drastic alternatives to what they saw as running away: A new hobby. A new religion. A new career. A support group. Prozac. Paxil. Elavil. Atavan. Alcohol. Pot. Ecstasy, just once. A man, more than once. Maybe a few men a whole bunch of times. How about volunteering to teach her many business skills to new immigrants? How about raising funds for a charity that assisted women who had it so bad in their marriages that if their husbands died they'd be throwing ten parties? How about buying a stack of fashion magazines and bringing them to the teen shelter in Springfield as an icebreaker that might lead to conversations helpful to the wayward residents, who might never have known a mother's true love? Gina listened to all of this. But her mind was made up. She knew what she needed. And now she knew where to find it.
In her head, she'd located this village easily, having traveled there more and more often since her life had become a foreign thing, mentally heading for the door just as the sharp-clawed bearers of deep despair began crawling across her idle mind. Bedside light snapped off, she'd flip to her right side, pull the covers over her head, create the essential breathing tunnel, and soon she'd be walking the beach, purchasing her breakfast bread, waving to the neighbors, drinking her morning tea, then closing behind her the rose-entwined gate to her rose-entwined cottage and walking to the ocean, where she'd soak in the peace that comes from finally knowing you are where you are meant to be, and through that, your true identity.
Right now, somewhere down this hill, Gina felt, that knowledge awaited. And the only thing left between her and it was the single street that ran through Booley, which on this gray but dry spring Wednesday showed no signs of life. From the hilltop, it appeared almost as it had in the travel section, as it had in her head. Quiet, still, muted ochre and pink and blue, even more silent minus the life spark of the hikers and only one car in view, rather than three, a squarish dull orange thing parked halfway down the cluster of buildings. A tan dot of a dog lolled in the road. Smoke levitated sleepily above a couple of chimneys. Gina's eye followed the pavement up as it threaded through an Astroturf-colored meadow and then to the massive span of sea, the hugeness of which actually gave her a start. She'd been studying the village so intensely, but just beyond that lay an entire ocean — bigger than the world, it seemed, and certainly more than large enough to bear all she was seeking. Anticipating her arrival, it had dressed for the occasion, dark midnight-sapphiry-purplish and tinsels of disco ball sparkles as it pitched forward a serious succession of surf-movie-sized breakers. She watched one crash, then the next, and the next, holding her breath as if the waves were at her feet on this dirt intersection rather than on a beach a mile away. Then Gina did what she was there to do: Wanting to stand still not a second longer, and despite already feeling she'd gone under for the last time, she dove deeper, into the unknown.
And how do I know all this?
Well, the whole time, I was right behind her.
Copyright © 2004 by Suzanne Strempek Shea
Posted July 22, 2009
In my opinion, this is Suzanne Strempek Shea's best novel to date. It hit the spot so well that after I'd borrowed it from the library twice, I got a copy of my own, the better to read it again.
Lead character Sophie seems very real as she deals with changes in her life.
Posted November 29, 2008
I was never so sorry to finish reading a book as I was when this one ended! Sophie White and her new friends quickly became MY new friends! Growing up Irish in Springfield, MA and having traveled through many small towns in Ireland, I could truly relate to everything in this book! Suzanne has captured the true spirit and thought processes of the Irish. Even the lingo is true-to-life. This book took a few different turns which kept me always guessing and wanting to come back for more!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 22, 2008
When I picked up this book in the Irish pavillion at the Big E (Eastern States Exposition) in Massachusetts this past September at least three woman commented on how much they enjoyed the author and this particular book. I started reading that night and had to force myself back to reality for the next few days in order to not completely ignore my family. When I finished I immediately started rereading it. <BR/><BR/>I thoroughly enjoyed Sophie, laughing aloud at some of her comments and, of course, crying my eyes out when ... I like a good, romantic story and this one quickly became a favorite. You won't catch me with a Harlequin Romance or anything focusing so much on a physical relationship; I prefer my imagination. This story had just enough. I found it very romantic.<BR/><BR/>Although I have no Irish heritage, I wound up feeling like the many tourists in the story who felt drawn to the country and its people and a little bit of "magic".Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 13, 2004
Posted May 4, 2004
In western Massachusetts, Gina Stebben¿s husband dies in an SUV accident and her daughter leaves stating the parent she loved was gone. Not long afterward, she loses her job. Her best friend Sophie White provides support to help Gina make it. When Gina decides to travel to Booley, Ireland, Sophie accompanies her. On their first day in town, Sophie meets Liam Kessem, owner of a messy jewelry store called Finola¿s after his former girlfriend who left two years ago with a German stud....................................... The next day Gina realizes she made a mistake and heads home for states after insisting Sophie remain in Ireland. As Sophie takes over the role of Finola at the store and in the town, she falls in love with Liam. He insists he loves his American, but she believes he still desires Finola, a legend in the town of Booley. Once her vacation is over, she plans to go home, wiser, nurturing, but heartbroken as the lesson is ¿parting is such sweet sorrow¿............................ BECOMING FINOLA is a strange but exhilarating character study with a lotof romance in the air. Readers will be surprised by the early twist as this is not Gina¿s story, but instead is a deep look at Sophie competing with a local legend by adopting much of Finola¿s pizzazz. Though a final crossing seems unnecessary, Gina and Liam on the surface carry this delightful tale, but it is the conceptual image of who was the real Finola that will intrigue the audience........................... Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.