Becoming Finola

A job offer accepted on a whim lands American Sophie White at the till in an Irish village’s craft shop, and in the position once held by Finola O’Flynn, a woman who’d swiftly left town a few years before. Sophie takes on Finola’s job of creating beaded bracelets, then also takes over Finola’s abandoned home, then Finola’s left-behind wardrobe, and, after her own episode of lost love, Finola’s discarded man. But could Sophie – or anyone – ever take over the legendary place that her predecessor still holds in the hearts of Booley? Finola’s myth manages to re-energize Sophie, who passes along the gift through bracelets she tags with invented promises, and she ultimately experiences some true magic of her own.



June 1, 2004
After turning to memoir, most recently in Shelf Life [BKL My 1/04], Shea, whose novels include Around Again (2001), returns to fiction in another delightfully enchanting tale about the unorthodox ways dreams can come true. Sophie and Gina leave Massachussetts for the tiny Irish village of Booley on a whim, and, just as whimsically, Gina returns home after just one day. Sophie stays, captivated by Booley’s charm and denizens, especially a woman who is no longer around. Finola O’Flynn, she of the shop that bears her name, skipped town without so much as a wave of her shillelah, breaking her lover’s heart and leaving scores of devoted villagers whose problems she solved in the lurch. As Sophie literally steps into Finola’s shoes, she begins living Finola’s life. So effortless is the tranformation, Sophie is unwilling to relinquish her new identity–and new boyfriend–when the real Finola suddenly reappears. Shea’s Sophie is a beguiling heroine, a plucky, lucky American minx who becomes the sort of Irish lass that would have made Maureen O’Hara proud.

© Copyright Booklist.

Kirkus Reviews

Shea forsakes her usual subject, Polish-Americans in Massachusetts (Around Again, 2001, etc.), to portray a single American woman taking on a new life in a small Irish village.

May 1, 2004
Narrator Sophie, single and 30-ish, comes to the westernmost spot in Ireland because her good friend and former co-worker Gina thinks a trip there will help both of them get over losing their jobs. But the day after they arrive in Booley for a three-month visit, Gina heads back to the US, declaring it’s not the place she needs but insisting that her friend remain. Soon Sophie is one of the locals. She gets a job in Liam’s craftshop, reorganizes the entire store, makes bracelets that are a big hit, and be-friends all the villagers. Liam is still recovering from his love affair with Finola O’ Flynn, whose name is on the storefront. Finola left Booley three years ago with a new love, and Liam has never been the same. Neither has most of Booley, Sophie soon learns: everyone she meets, from Noel the weaver to elderly retired farmer Joe, recalls the wonders Finola worked. Sophie soon finds herself taking on Finola’s identity as customers in the shop, mostly tourists, assume that must be her name. She had planned to move in with traveling salesman Charlie when she went home, but–in what she concedes is an amazing coincidence–Charlie’s hitherto unacknowledged wife and two daughters stop by the shop on their way to London. Sophie’s broken heart is soon cured by Liam, and she begins to plan on settling in Booley for good after a quick trip home. But then Finola suddenly returns the day before Sophie must leave. Stateside, Sophie tries to forget, but a promise to old Joe brings her back to the village, where Finola has some revelations of her own. An engaging tale, deftly crafted and plotted, with plenty of Irish whimsy, charm, and blarney.

© Copyright Kirkus Reviews.

The Republican

‘Becoming Finola’ quick on heels of Strempek Shea’s ‘Shelf Life’

By Mary Ellen O’Shea
June 21, 2004
Proving her prolificacy beyond the shadow of a doubt, local author Suzanne Strempek Shea has just released her second book of the season. “Becoming Finola,” a 322-page novel of love, passion and personal growth, is Strempek Shea’s seventh book, and the first that is set in a locale other than her hometown of Palmer, where she still lives. Strempek Shea has only recently released another book. “Shelf Life,” which hit the bookstore shelves in April, is an autobiographical account of her first year working a part-time job at Edward’s Books in downtown Springfield. She will formally unveil “Becoming Finola” Wednesday night at 7 at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main St., Northampton. The public is welcome to meet the author and listen to her read from the book as well as discuss her work. In “Finola,” the 45-year-old former newspaper reporter casts her literary net 3,000 miles away to the tiny, made-up town of Booley in western coastal Ireland. There the main character, Sophie White, moves quickly from being a tourist in the town to an employee in a tiny shop, filling in for the mysterious Finola O’Flynn, whose life she overtakes in a quest to find herself. Besides working the job of the woman who left suddenly to make a new life with a new man, Sophie lives in Finola’s house, wears her clothes, and even falls in love with Liam Keegan, Finola’s ex-lover and the owner of the gift shop, aptly named Finola O’Flynn. The story line heats up when Finola returns to Booley, finding Sophie in her house, wearing her clothes and enmeshed in the life of the man she seemingly wants back. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that Sophie emerges as a strong character, strong enough to be called “a plucky, lucky American minx who becomes the sort of Irish lass that would have made Maureen O’Hara proud” in a Booklist review. Strempek Shea said the beginnings of Finola happened during a trip she made in Ireland in 2001, following her treatment for breast cancer. On that trip – she herself was on a journey of personal change and growth – she found herself in a tiny gift shop on the west coast of Ireland, straightening out displays in much the same way as Sophie does in an early scene. “The guy in the shop said to me, “Do you want to work here?” Someone had just left and he needed someone to make signs and help out,” she said. “I left without the job, but in my head I had the little kernel of a story,” she said. Two years later, Strempek Shea brought the story to life to meet a contract deadline with Washington Square Press, the publisher of her four other works of fiction. Her two non-fiction works are published by Beacon Press. Strempek Shea took nine months to write this book, turning out her usual three to five pages per day even as she was writing “Shelf Life.” A lively storyteller who peppers all of her books with her natural grace and humor, Strempek Shea will likely never run out of ideas. She is now working on a novel “Large, Hairy Male,” about a woman who touches the lives of others as she picks up a dog she has purchased on the Internet. “Becoming Finola” was released as a paperback, and costs $13.

© Copyright The Republican.

Irish Voice

By Sean O’Driscoll
September 1, 2004
In this latest novel by the New England Book Award winner for 2000, Sophie White arrives in the Irish seaside village of Booley after losing her job in the States. She takes a job at the local craft store, a job once held by the mysterious Finola O’Flynn, who has left the village. sophie also moves into Finola’s house, starts wearing Finola’s clothes, dates her ex-boyfriend and sells healing bracelets she claims are made by Finola. However, Finola returns to Booley to reclaim her life, throwing up huge complications for Sophie. Definitely chick lit, but I found it well written and funny with accurate Irish dialogue. Would make great travel reading.

© Copyright Irish Voice.


Q&A on Becoming Finola

The setting of this book is a big change for you. Why did you choose to set a story in Ireland rather than in Western Massachusetts – and your native Polish-American community – where your four other novels are set?
I was nearly finished with another novel, but had put it aside when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While I was recovering, I went back to that novel and just couldn’t pick up the thread. My pal Tanya Barrientos, a novelist (Frontera Street, Family Resemblance) and also a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, suggested I start something totally new, and set it somewhere different, with characters other than those I normally write about. Her suggestion got me thinking it would be great to set something in Ireland, a place I love to visit, so that opening the laptop each day would be like taking another trip there. And that turned out to be the experience.

What challenges were there to setting this book in a foreign country?
I’m not from there, I just love to hang around there. So I could write only from a visitor’s point of view, and with a visitor’s ear and eye. I didn’t travel there in the nine months I was writing this, but regularly listened to Irish radio on my computer to get some sense of being there – if only being there in a room listening to the radio. Several Irish friends read the manuscript to prevent me from making too many embarrassing mistakes regarding cultural references and such. If any slipped past them, well I guess that will make me look all the more the visitor.

Granted, there are only four or five businesses in Booley, but why did you give Sophie a job in the craft shop?
I once walked into a craft shop in a very small Irish town that happened to have only four or five businesses, and while talking with the owner I was absentmindedly rearranging the display on his table. I should note that I work in a bookstore, the first year of which I have chronicled in my newly released memoir “Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore.” So my bookstore job has me constantly creating order of merchandise. I was creating some order of this shop’s merchandise without realizing it, and the shop owner asked if I were looking for work, because an employee had just quit and he was in need of help. I was only visiting for a week, so I said no, but right then I had the little seed for a story about a woman who gets the offer of a job and ends up taking not only her predecessor’s position, but her home, wardrobe, town and man.

You have an art background. Did you (no pun) draw on that while writing Becoming Finola?
I guess the art background and interest is what draws me into those sort of shops in the first place. And and friend and i once owned a craft shop in a local tourist town, Sturbridge, Mass., so I could write with some authority about what might go on in such a place. The Irish shop in which I was offered the job sold some beaded jewelry, and beading is something I’ve been doing a bit of for the past few years, so, again, I knew a little about that. Seems to be a theme here: I know a little bit about something, and I can end up writing an entire book. Right now, half as a marketing idea and half because it’s just good therapy, I’m stringing together some bracelets not unlike the ones sold at Finola O’Flynn. A detail of one example is on the back cover of the book.

This story is about identity. How much did you know about each of the main characters as you were writing the story?
I knew what I always know about my characters early on, which is next to nothing. I start each story with what I call the “TV Guide synopsis:” one line that tells you what the story is about. A woman gets offered work in a craft shop, and ends up with much more than that. That’s all I knew. I knew Sophie would be unemployed, which would allow her that time in Booley. I knew that Liam was hiring because his ex-girlfriend had left town and that there would be plenty of fun baggage from that. I knew that the ex-girlfriend, Finola, would be mysterious and lengendy. I write at least two pages a day, and in that process, I learn/make up the additional details and story.

Did the characters turn out to be very different than you perceived them at the start?
Well they certainly had a lot of room to grow from those basic facts. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but some of the romances I didn’t see ahead of time. But isn’t that like in real life? I also didn’t know how powerful Finola O’Flynn would be to the town. Those stories just sort of fed themselves and grew easily.

Is Booley a real place? If not, what was its inspiration.
I was looking for a name for this village, and ended up with Booley because it sounds cool, and it’s also the name for a verdant area to which Irish farmers of years back would bring their animals – and themselves – for some summer respite. I liked the idea of it being a place of refuge, as Sophie’s spirit-wounded friend Gina invites her along to Booley to get away from her sad reality.
In your acknowledgments you call Becoming Finola “a faraway fable.” What was it like to write something with a bit of magic in it?
Fiction is so fun because you can basically make everything up. But because of the setting of this book, a country in which there is a story or belief everywhere you turn, I felt that I could have some fun inventing additional ones and exploring the whole thing of believing in something just because it is labeled “power” or “wisdom.” If you wear the bracelet with that tag, will you attain some of that?

You also thank a reader for her request to write a love story. Didn’t your other novels deal with love relationships?
They did, but in this one, the ending is airtight in a way that the others were nebulous. This is the type of no-doubt ending that my friend Pauline was asking for, I believe. And in doing a different type of ending (different for me), I enjoyed writing something new in that way, too.

© Copyright Q&A on Becoming Finola.