Marian Keyes, the popular and immensely talented Irish writer, has a gift. Well, she has many but the one that fascinates me the most and makes her novels, which have a way of tackling some tough subjects with a wicked sense of humor, is her talent for characterization. I’ve read five of her novels now and all of her work is populated by very human, flawed characters that it is sometimes difficult to like. Yet, somehow, she develops them in a way that makes them impossible not to root for. Her Walsh Family series focuses on a family with five pretty much grown daughters, but each novel in the series focuses on one of the daughters. In The Brightest Star in the Sky, Keyes tackles not one or even two major characters but 7. Seven major, fully fleshed out characters which she develops thoroughly and gradually. In less capable hands, this would become tedious because getting to know all of the characters takes up a good portion of the novel. Most of the action that brings the cast together doesn’t happen until the final 100 pages.
Keyes develops her characters through glimpses into their history, dialogue, and interactions with the other characters. And it is magical. When I began The Brightest Star in the Sky, I was confused and worried that I was about to encounter my first disappointment at the hands of Marian Keyes. It is narrated by an unknown entity – a spirit of some sort – which drifts from apartment to apartment of 66 Star Street, Dublin. And it’s just strange. But before long, I forgot about the unusual narrator and became absorbed in the lives of the residents and the people in their lives. And what a diverse group it is:
Katie – A responsible woman who is still unmarried as she turns forty, has a love of shoes, stationery shops, and drugstores.
Conall – Katie’s workaholic boyfriend whose job is to streamline companies after a takeover.
Lydia – A brash twenty-something cab driver who is seen as rude and hard but is secretly dealing with personal issues no one in their twenties should have to deal with.
Jemima – A wise older woman with a beloved dog, Grudge, and a beloved foster son, the voice of reason in the group but with a tragic secret.
Fionn – Jemima’s man-child of a foster son, moves to Dublin to star in a gardening show and wreaks havoc along the way.
Matt and Maeve – A young married couple that, on the surface, seems like a sweet, innocent couple but they are harboring a painful secret.
They aren’t always likable – then again, who is? In fact, there are a couple that I initially did not like at all and at least one that I like at first but ended up not really rooting for. But there are, as we know, two sides to every story. Once I got to know those characters more deeply, I discovered redeeming qualities and saw how the complexities of their lives colored their actions and behavior.
Creating complete and complex characters is a gift I, and I’m sure all writers, wish to possess. It is important for holding the reader’s interest in the story and also for making an emotional impact like the one I experienced when the truth behind the strain in Maeve and Matt’s marriage came out. If I hadn’t grown to care about them I wouldn’t have been quite as affected by Maeve’s experience as I was (though it is horrific no matter who it happens to). If I hadn’t gotten to see what good people they truly are, I wouldn’t have been so infuriated by their treatment by the justice system and the reaction of their so-called friends. How, I ask, couldn’t anyone who truly knew Maeve think she was lying?