Emma Hannigan’s The Gift of Friends - Beloved author signs off with warm celebration of friendship
Fiction: The Gift of Friends
Hachette, paperback, 464 pages, €18
The final novel from author Emma Hannigan is released to mark the anniversary of her death. Hannigan died of breast cancer on March 3 last year, having sent the acknowledgements for her 13th book, The Gift of Friends, to her editor just days before.
Her previous novel, Letters to My Daughters, was published in 2018, and spent five weeks at the top of the bestseller charts following a successful campaign to raise €100,000 for Breast Cancer Ireland, a charity that Hannigan had long supported.
The Gift of Friends centres on the residents of Kingfisher Road, a quiet, leafy neighbourhood in the affluent suburb of Vayhill.
There's Nancy, a sprightly and unfiltered widow approaching her 70th birthday; Pearl, a kind yet reserved mother to a disabled son who is grappling with a troubled marriage; Maia, a feisty mum-of-two raising her teenage twins in very different circumstances than she grew up in; Betsy, a refined older lady dealing with the sudden return of her adult son, his brash wife and their surprise new baby from Australia; and Danielle, the fiancée of the wealthy heir to the Johnston family fortune who has just moved into the street's only vacant property.
Though varying in age from 20 to 70, the group form a tight-knit bond, prompted by an attempt by the local council to evict Nancy from her home of 25 years. Working together, the women try to find a solution and grow closer in the process.
They may have lived next to each other for years, but each is harbouring a secret, privately tormented by feelings of grief, inadequacy, fear, loss and betrayal. In learning to open up and share their troubles, the five women find strength, support and a greater understanding of themselves and each other.
The idyllic surrounds of Kingfisher Road, which is illustrated on the opening pages, offer an aspirational vision of home life, peppered with his-and-hers walk-in wardrobes, glass chandeliers and elaborate parties decorated with Japanese floating flowers.
Hannigan's cast of well-to-do women who spend their days in each other's homes and devote seemingly endless time to one another runs the risk of being overly nostalgic and difficult to relate to, but her feel-good story about the healing power of friendship is universal.
Hannigan is known and loved for her warm, well-written characters, and the varied group of women she creates here feel true to life - they are each carefully developed and a pleasure to spend time with.
Despite the differing personalities, they come across like a real friend group, as quick with a cheeky joke as they are with unpleasant truths and frank advice.
The supporting characters don't get quite as much attention. Betsy's daughter-in-law Tasha, for instance, seems doomed to remain a cold, unmaternal villain without giving readers any hint as to why.
The male characters are even less convincing, but thankfully the novel is largely uninterested in them, choosing instead to focus on the crises facing the central cast.
These problems all revolve around family: a figure from Nancy's past makes a shocking return; Maia worries her husband is hiding a dark secret from her; Pearl struggles to placate her irascible husband; Betsy strives to protect her new grandson amidst family turmoil; and Danielle must confront her fiancé's haughty mother.
The Gift of Friends is an easy, pacy read, full of gripping revelations and personal dramas. The last segment, which jumps ahead in time, feels disappointingly flimsy and far-fetched, but Hannigan brings the five friends together in a finale that celebrates women supporting women - a heart-warming and uplifting conclusion, and a fitting farewell from its beloved author.