Have you ever wondered how an author feels when she sits down to start another novel after writing a great book? It must be a scary moment. Can the new book hope to be as good as the last one? I rather imagine that Jeanette Baker may well have had some fears as she penned Irish Fire. Her previous book, Nell received almost universal raves (including a 5 Heart rating from TRR.) Indeed, just a few
days ago, Baker won her first Rita Award for Nell. Irish Fire was released on the heels of her victory.
Baker made a very wise choice when it came to the subject matter of her new book. Rather than revisiting “the troubles,” the subject of her last two books, she has written a much more traditional romance with a much more traditional setting. Irish Fire is set in the horse breeding and racing society of contemporary Ireland, with nary a
political problem in sight. If it lacks the unique power and immediacy of Nell and Irish Lady, it is nonetheless a most entertaining love story.
Caitlin Kenneally was born in the village of Kilcullen, in the heart of Irish racing country. A beautiful and brilliant girl, she had developed a fascination with horses. But in the Ireland of her youth, there had been no place for a woman in the racing world. So she had headed off for America where women like her could find work with the thoroughbreds she loves. There she had caught the attention of Sam Claiborne, scion
of one of Kentucky’s great racing families.
For fourteen years, she had lived a life of privilege, playing an important role in the work of the Claiborne stables. Now, she is back in Kilcullen, with her two children, Sam and Annie, and her mare, Kentucky Gold. Her marriage to Sam is over, destroyed by his drinking and womanizing. Her hopes for the future lie in the foal her mare is carrying, the get of the great stud, Triple Crown winner, Narragansett.
She has stabled Kentucky Gold at the famous Curragh stud farm. When the mare goes into labor prematurely and the vet is away, Caitlin rushes to her side, and delivers the colt with the aid of the farm manager, Brian Hennessey. Thus, she meets a man who is as dedicated to horses as she herself is.
Sam Claiborne is not pleased that his wife and children have fled to Ireland. He is particularly upset that she has taken the horse with her. While there is no doubt that the mare belongs to Caitlin, Sam desperately wants the colt, especially when his sire dies unexpectedly. And he doesn’t want his children so far away. Thus, Caitlin finds
herself involved in a custody battle, both for her children and for her horse.
Irish Fire is a complex and multilayered story. Yes, there is a lovely romance between Caitlin and Brian. But there is so much more. Baker excels in describing the many complex relationships that shape the lives of her characters. Particularly well drawn are the mother/daughter relationships. Caitlin has come home to live with her
mother Brigid, who was widowed before the birth of this, the last of her six daughters. They have always had a difficult relationship, borne of secrets more than thirty years old. Baker demonstrates great subtlety in portraying their interactions. Likewise, the author skillfully describes the problems that Caitlin has with her own daughter, ten year
old Annie. Annie has been uprooted from her familiar life. She misses her other grandmother and her father. She doesn’t understand the reasons that have led her mother to leave Kentucky and her beloved home. The difficult dynamics between this mother/daughter pair are equally well done.
Irish Fire is also a story of the challenge of going home again. Caitlin left Kilcullen a young, unsophisticated girl. She returns a very different woman. Her adjustment, and that of her neighbors, is nicely presented in the story.
Finally, Irish Fire offers an inside look into the world of horse racing and horse breeding. Secrets and dangers lie behind its glamorous surface, dangers that threaten Caitlin and her dreams of a new life.
Thus, I can say that Baker made a good choice when she chose to follow her great book with something quite different. If Irish Fire lacks the power of Nell, it is a very, very good and entertaining contemporary romance. I recommend it without reservation.