In the Irish town of Carrickwell, with its lush, endlessly rolling hills and authentic country tranquility, three women's lives are anything but calm. There's Mel, a compulsively ambitious mother/publicity manager at a high-powered PR firm living proof that balancing motherhood and a full-time job is no walk in the park. The hot-headed, indomitable Cleo, just out of college with a degree in hotel management, would like nothing better than to modernize and revive her family's dwindling hotel but faces a constant battle with her old-fashioned parents. And finally, there's the stylish, sweet-tempered Daisy, a self-consciously curvy fashion buyer for an upscale clothing boutique, who has been struggling and longing to have a baby with her absolutely perfect boyfriend. Although unconnected, these three women have one thing in common: they all need a break from their stressful lives.
...these tough gals hit the nearest spa!
So each one sets out for a little R & R at the new Clouds Hill spa, built by an American woman with her own secret turmoil. It is there that Mel, Cleo, and Daisy meet their worlds and troubles colliding forming an intimate bond that helps them to realize what matters most in life, always and forever.
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Always and Forever
By Cathy Kelly
Downtown PressCopyright © 2005 Cathy Kelly
All right reserved.
PrologueThe woman stood as still as the mountains around her, taking in the view from Mount Carraig House - the windswept, overgrown gardens and the ragged path leading down to the small lake. Behind her towered Mount Carraig itself. Rob, the estate agent, had told her that Carraig meant "rock" in Irish, and that's exactly what Mount Carraig was: a spectacular rock dominating a smaller range of mountains known as the Four Sisters, which swelled to the southwest.
Spread out before her was Carrickwell, the bustling market town that took its name from the mountain. It was bisected by the silver line of the River Tullow, and from here, high up, she could make out the gently winding main street, the sprawl of houses, shops, parks and schools, and the medieval cathedral at the center.
A quarter of a century before, Carrickwell had been a sleepy backwater, within reach of Dublin but still very much a rural community. Time and the price of houses in the city had turned it into a busier town, but the air of tranquility had remained.
Some said this was because of the ancient lea lines that crossed it. Druids, early Christians, religious refugees - all in their turn had come to Carrickwell and set up home in the benevolent shadow of Mount Carraig where they could seek refuge and thrive on the pure mountain spring water.
On a slope to the left of the mountain were the ruins of a Cistercian monastery, now a honeypotfor tourists, watercolor painters and scholars. There was also the remains of a round tower where the monks had raced up rope ladders to safety when invaders came.
Across the town, near the pretty but slightly crumbling Willow Hotel, was a small stone circle that archaeologists believed to be the site of a druidic settlement. Mystical Fires, a small shop in the town that sold all manner of alternative artifacts, from crystals and tarot cards to dream catchers and angel pins, did a roaring trade in books about the druids at midsummer.
At Christmas, visitors drifted unconsciously away from Mystical Fires to The Holy Land, a little Christian bookshop, where they could buy recordings of Gregorian chant, as well as prayer books, delicate Hummel Holy Water fonts, and the shop's speciality, mother-of-pearl rosary beads.
The respective owner of each shop, a pair of lovely septuagenarian ladies, each devout in her chosen creed, didn't mind in the slightest that their businesses waxed and waned in this manner.
"The wheel of fortune turns in its own way," said Zara from Mystical Fires.
"God knows what's best for us," agreed Una from The Holy Land.
With all the spiritual vibes, there was a great sense of peace hovering over Carrickwell and it drew people to the town.
It was certainly this aura that had drawn Leah Meyer to Mount Carraig House on a cold September morning.
Despite a thick woolen sweater under her old ski jacket, Leah could feel the chill sneaking into her body. She was used to the dry heat of California, where cold weather meant 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and the possibility of using less sunscreen. Here, the climate was so different and the unaccustomed cold made her feel achy. I'm beginning to feel my age, she thought, shivering, though she knew everyone marveled at how young she looked.
She'd taken good care of herself over the years, but time had marched on and, eventually, no cream could keep away its mark. It had taken a discreet eye and brow lift a few years ago to give her back the finely sculpted face she'd been born with. Sixty really could be the new forty - Leah smiled to herself - as long as you had the right plastic surgeon.
And she could put up with the aching joints for a while because she'd finally found it, the place she had been looking for for years in which to build her spa. Carrickwell and Mount Carraig House were perfect. And in that state of mind, she didn't feel the air as cold, but as pure and cleansing.
"Calm," she said finally, turning to the estate agent, who was standing a polite distance away. "That's the word I was looking for. Don't you feel instantly calm when you stand here?"
Rob, the estate agent, studied the tumbling wreck that was Mount Carraig House and wondered whether it was he who needed his head examined or whether it was the elegant American visitor. All he saw was a ruin in a wilderness that had been on his agency's books for four years with ne'er a sniff of serious interest from anyone.
A few people had come to look, all right, drawn by the lyrical description written by a one-time employee who had a definite flair for making a silk purse out of the proverbial sow's ear.
This elegant eighteenth-century family house, once home to the famous Delaneys of Carrickwell, is designed in the grand classical style and boasts the fabulous high-ceilinged rooms of the period. The sweeping gravel drive and the great portico are reminiscent of a romantic era of horse-drawn carriages, while the abundant formal rose gardens, sheltered from the mountain breezes, need only a skilled gardener's hands to bring them back to their former glory. The views of the fierce beauty of Mount Carraig and the valley below are unrivalled, and a stately rhododendron walk, planted over a hundred years ago, leads down to the majestic Lough Enla.
The blarney had worked its magic on Mrs. Meyer, for sure, because she'd seen the house on the firm's website and now, here she was, clearly captivated. Rob could tell when clients liked a place: they stopped noticing him and noticed only the property, imagining their furniture in the rooms and their family's laughter echoing in the garden. This woman showed all the signs of being besotted. He knew she had money too, because she'd arrived in a sleek black chauffeur-driven car from the airport. It had to be said she didn't dress like a millionaire - she wore jeans, a very ordinary blue padded coat, simple soft cream pumps and no jewelry.
It was hard to work out how old she was. Rob liked to put a date to property and people: eighteenth-century house; seventies bungalow; forty-something rich businessman buyer. But this woman's age eluded him. Elegantly slim, with silky chestnut hair and big dark eyes, she could have been anything from thirty to sixty. Her olive skin was unlined and glowing, and she looked so happy within herself. Early forties, perhaps ...
"I love the house," Leah said, because there was no point beating around the bush. "I'll take it." She clasped Rob's hand and smiled. Now that she'd made the decision, she felt peace flooding through her.
She'd felt tired for so long, but already she was impatient to start work. Mount Carraig Spa? The Spa on the Rock? The name would come to her. A name suggestive of a haven, not a place where bored women would have their toes painted and men could do a few lengths in the pool and hope they were staving off the onslaught of Father Time.
No. Her spa would be about making people feel good from the inside out. It would be a place where people would come when they were exhausted, drained and didn't know where else to go. They could swim in the pool and forget about everything, they could lie on the massage mat and feel their worries drain away along with their aches. With the refreshing water from the mountain running past the door, and the tranquil vibes of Carrickwell in the air, they would be revitalized and healed.
The magic of a similar place had once given her back some semblance of peace and serenity. Cloud's Hill had been its name, from the ancient American Indian name for the hill on which it had been built, and suddenly Leah realized that the same name would be perfect here.
The other Cloud's Hill, where she'd learned to enjoy life again, was a world away from here, but there was magic in this place too, she knew it. And with this spa she could do for other people what the original Cloud's Hill had done for her. Giving something back was her way of saying thanks, and setting up the spa was what she'd dreamed of for years, but had never found the perfect place to do so before. And, she calculated, if she started the work straightaway, the spa would be open within a year - or a year and a half at the latest.
"You ... you mean you'll buy the house?" said Rob, shocked at the speed of the decision.
Leah's face was serene. "I will," she said softly.
"This calls for a drink," said Rob, relief washing over him. "On me."
Excerpted from Always and Forever by Cathy Kelly Copyright © 2005 by Cathy Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Always and Forever
Once upon a time, in the enchanting town of Carrickwell, Ireland, there were three divas in distress…
Mel, a PR wizard who is running out of spells, battles with the guilt of being a working mother. Daisy, once an ugly duckling and now a savvy fashion buyer, wakes up to find Prince Charming has turned back into a slimy frog. And Cleo, a feisty graduate of hotel management and the little princess of her family, watches helplessly as the castle of her childhood crumbles around her.
But fear not, fair ladies—a fairy godmother has arrived. Leah, a mysterious woman from America, creates a magical place in Carrickwell called Clouds Hill. Here, Mel, Daisy, and Cleo will find the answers to their problems and, along the way, rediscover the power of female friendship.
A modern-day fairytale, Always and Forever doesn’t promise women the cookie-cutter, happily-ever-after ending. Instead, it casts a light on the many challenges that they face today and celebrates all the lionhearted ladies who pick up the heavy swords and slay the dragons themselves.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. We meet four distinct women in Always and Forever. Compare and contrast Leah, Mel, Cleo, and Daisy. Which do you find the most realistic? With whom do you most identify?
2. “The longer Leah lived, the more she realized that people were blind to so many things. The secret to surviving, as she had discovered herself, was opening your eyes and seeing the world and yourself for what they both were” (page 202). What traits does Leah have that make the other women open up to her? How does she help the other characters realize their goals?
3. “I’ve spent all my working life proving that having children doesn’t mean that I’m any different to the men I work with. If you use your family as an excuse, it lets all of us down. They love to think we can’t do it as well as they can just because we have ovaries” (page 217). Do you agree or disagree with Hillary’s philosophy? How do you think the other women feel about this statement?
4. Mel, Daisy, and Cleo each have flaws that prevent them from moving forward. What are the greatest challenges they must overcome to find happiness and fulfillment?
5. Discuss each character’s journey through this novel—from her initial stasis to the event that changed everything in her world, to her quest for change and the critical choice she makes in order to defeat her obstacles.
6. “Not so long ago, she wouldn’t have dreamed of such an intimacy with someone she’d only known for a short time…. Motherhood had brought them all to the same place and gave them a bond” (page 558). Discuss the themes of motherhood and womanhood, and how they influence each character.
7. The title Always and Forever implies a story with fairytale elements. In what ways does this book resemble a traditional fairytale, and in which ways is it different?
8. The Irish Independent praised Cathy Kelly’s “capacity to write observantly and kindly about women and their relationships, lit by occasional laugh-out-loud funny interludes.” Which moments made you laugh out loud? Do you think the humor and drama are well balanced?
9. All of the novel’s protagonists are women. Overall, how do you think this book portrays men? How would the men in each character’s life describe the women?
10. Which character said:
“Why do we all think we have to get married? What’s wrong with women’s brains that we feel we’re not connected with the world unless we have a man to connect us with it?” (Answer on page 107).
“When I was young, I looked up to my mother and while I adored her, I didn’t want to be her. She’d given up her job when she got married and she was dependent, really dependent, on my father all her life. I didn’t want to be that person” (Answer on page 218).
“It’s the laddish culture that makes women go out and get drunk” (Answer on page 252).
“Irish is a lyrical and unusual language…. Simple words have many meanings” (Answer on page 344).
“Groups of women are threatening, but single women aren’t” (Answer on page 506).
Tips to Enhance Your Bookclub
1. Enjoy a weekend of whimsy: Find an historic inn and hold your book club meeting in a relaxing environment. (Find one at www.bbonline.com/historic.html.)
2. Treat yourself to a fairytale day: Pamper your book club at a local spa. (Find one at http://www.spafinder.com/search.)
3. Have a pint: Meet your club at the local pub. (Find one at at www.irishabroad.com/Culture/Pubs/Directory/List.asp?Rgn=USA.)
4. Ask the author: Send in a question to the author through her website, www.cathykelly.com/writing.htm.
5. Feed your friends: Host a potluck dinner and have your book-club members bring an Irish dish. (Search for recipes by region at http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/re_super_search/0,1977,FOOD_9934,00.html.)