In her new novel "Heart and Soul," best-selling Irish author Maeve Binchy follows up "Whitethorn Woods" with another vivid portrait of modern Ireland in all its greed and grandeur. The good news for her millions of U.S. fans is that the prolific Dublin-based author is finally back in the kind of creative form that made her a household name in the first place. In "Heart and Soul," we meet Dr. Clara Casey, who has just taken a thankless job establishing an underfunded heart clinic. Like most people Clara already had enough on her plate to begin with - contending with two grown up daughters and a needy ex-husband who simply won't leave her alone. The heart that Clara needs to save most, it turns out, is her own. The first thing you notice about "Heart and Soul" is the surprising size of its cast of characters - all Dublin is here, it seems. Among the very recognizable Irish types clamoring for a hearing is Declan the doctor, a gentle unassuming man who still lives with his parents. Then there are the two raucous nurses, Fiona and Barbara, and Ania, the young Polish immigrant still reeling from a ruinous affair with a thankless man. Other colorful patients round out the cast at Clara's heart clinic. There's the poor unfortunate Father Brian Flynn, a man who's much more sinned against than sinning. Flynn, we discover, is being pursued by a devious con artist, precisely the kind of man he's least equipped to combat, and Binchy wrests a lot of gentle humor from his self-inflicted misfortunes. Binchy's hallmark as a novelist is her indulgent fondness for people who get themselves into awkward scrapes, as is her admiration for the kind souls who come along to help them out of them. That compassion sets her apart as a writer, and it's present on every page of "Heart and Soul." Of course there's no briar patch more tangled than the human heart, and few contemporary Irish writers can match Binchy's empathy for ordinary people facing tough times. Amazingly, despite the large cast of characters, Binchy finds a formula to keep them all straight, and in "Heart and Soul" she nimbly skips between them as the story sprints along. Another Binchy trademark is the strong Irish women characters who populate these tales, women that are usually the last people to recognize their own personal strengths. (Perhaps their greatest strength in "Heart and Soul" is their own common sense). These women politely refuse to be doormats, or chapters in someone else's tale, and that's what makes them so special. When they reluctantly but finally stand up for themselves you want to cheer. Binchy's women pray for change, hope for change, plead for it - and then eventually they just wise up, dust themselves off and make change happen themselves. What could be more inspiring than that? In her books the marginalized, the written-off, the neglected find their courage and their own voices and so you root for them from start to finish. In Heart and Soul Binchy has assembled a hilariously diverse cast of characters to help her lineup of demanding and difficult patients. Before long they manage to establish the heart clinic as an essential part of the community, and soon Clara has to decide whether or not to leave a place where lives are saved, courage is rewarded and humor and optimism triumph over greed and self-pity. This being a Binchy novel, and Clara being exactly the kind of remarkable spirit that the novelist delights in creating, you can tell that she'll probably make the right decision. The pleasure for the reader is in everything that leads up to it in this. Binchy writes stories that feel as inviting and comforting as a roaring log fire, a favorite sweater or a glass of hot chocolate (and that's probably how her books are read around the world), but the secret of her success is that she knows no matter how beaten down you are by experience, tomorrow you could turn the corner and your whole life could change. She has the born storyteller's faith in people and in possibility, and she knows how much twenty fours hours can do to change your life. "Heart and Soul" (Knopf) is due in bookstores on February 17.

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