Author: Jan Karon
In their 11th adventure, Father Tim and Cynthia are off for a much anticipated vacation. Going back to his roots in Ireland, Father Tim finally gets to share the place that has long been dear to him with his wife. Unfortunately, explorations through old castles and the mossy countryside are not in the cards as one tragedy after another leaves Father Tim and his wife stuck at their inn, unable to explore, and just where they are actually needed most.
The innkeepers are a kindly couple, but the coziness of their establishment belies the generations of bitterness and misunderstandings it was built over. As Cynthia recovers from a severely sprained ankle, more of the family’s secret life and back-story emerge, and Father Tim finds himself in the role of a confessor, a friend, and a spiritual guide. It may not be the vacation they envisioned, or even needed, but in the end it makes all the difference in healing a fractured family.
When I found out that In the Company of Others was set in Ireland and was finally going to follow Cynthia and Father Tim as they journey across his homeland, this time together, I was beyond thrilled. This, with the beautiful green hills of Ireland, the history, the gentle grey skies and rain, would be a pluviophile’s dream, and compared with the gentle lack of hurry and depth of understanding that runs throughout the Mitford novels, I expected a favorite. Even author Jan Karon claims this as her personal favorite Father Tim adventure.
From the start, though, In the Company of Others sets itself apart and not necessarily in a good way. Father Tim and Cynthia are cameos in their own roles, and the residents of the inn, namely the family who runs it, become the central stars. Father Tim and Cynthia fall into support roles as the family slowly untangles their complicated relationships, which are nearly undone by a burglary. Along the way, Father Tim visits one of the family’s older relatives, a woman whose vitriol towards God hints at a lasting guilt. With the vacation time running short, Ireland and all the chances to bring out its rich beauty seceded to the forced drama.
Having our favorite duo sidelined weakens the book. And then there are the vast swathes of people, all with some sort of side-drama, pouring through the inn. The names are endless, the mannerisms all very similar, and soon we lose sight of the central family in this plague of guests, many of whom have the strange desire to confess their problems to Tim and Cynthia. The family itself is extensive and side relatives and their friends (and doctors of relatives of friends…) just leads to further confusion. It’s impossible to really grasp this family tree, and once a bomb is dropped about identity it gets even more complicated to understand how these people are interrelated, who they all are, and why they have so many issues with each other.
Meanwhile, Cynthia, who is mostly bed ridden, discovers an old journal from the doctor who originally built the structure that would later become the inn. Together with Father Tim, they slog through page after page of the vapid stories of the journal’s original owner, who has his own extremely large cast of friends, family, and enemies. The journal never ties into the main drama, and I found it just as hard to keep up with the struggles it contained as with the inn family and their history of grief. Finally, the journal gets dropped in the conclusion, and everything gets a too-perfect bow, which isn’t actually faithful to the Mitford series and Karon’s realistic admission that bad things do happen and sometimes prevail. It’s all a little too orchestrated, too complicated for its own good and yet too ultimately lackluster. Father Tim gets to say some of his best lines about love and how it is an act and not an emotion as the family passes through their own personal night of the soul. Unfortunately, the nuggets of wisdom and pretty writing are interspersed with a lot of very slowly paced, unnecessarily complicated mess. I tried, but could never care about any of the people, and along with Father Tim in his less gracious moments, I found myself annoyed at them for interfering in the story I wanted to hear: Tim’s.
There is no reason to actually read In the Company of Others beyond completing the pedantic calls of fandom (i.e. you must read them all.) Nothing happens here to progress Tim or Cynthia, and the rest of Mitford is relegated to the occasional brief letter or phone call. This story could stand on its own – indeed, it might have more appeal to non-fans, who won’t find themselves disappointed that the should-be main characters are nearly invisible. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not an interesting or compelling one either. It actually left me wanting a break from a series I normally thrill to read, but all good stories have their weak points. In the Company of Others is the weak point in an otherwise strong and wise series.
– Frances Carden
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