My first meeting with a Maeve Binchy novel occurred completely by chance when I was in my mid 20’s, nosing my way through a used bookstore in an attempt to find something new-to-me to read. I came across a hardcover copy of Light a Penny Candle, minus its cover, for the princely sum of a dollar. Since it had no jacket flap with a convenient plot summary, I opened the book, had a skim of the first 3 pages, and decided it looked good enough to pay the dollar for, and since I was a poor grad student at the time, that dollar was a lot—I could have bought two paperbacks in the same store for that amount. But it looked like a pleasant, undemanding read and a good story, so I took it home, devoured it when I should have been studying for my Master’s comprehensive exam, and vowed to keep an eye out for more Binchy because I loved it.
25 years later, I own just about everything Binchy wrote. Her books occupy most of one shelf of a tall bookcase in my office, and the covers on them are well-worn because I reread them often. During the times when I couldn’t afford to buy new books, I hunted them down used. Later, I bought them when they were released. So my collection is a bit raggedy—many paperbacks, many hardcovers (some library remainders), and my original copy of Light a Penny Candle missing its jacket.
I wish I could say what it is about her books that I find so appealing. Certainly the setting is part of it: Ireland is a mythical land to me, and one I have never visited. Binchy lovingly details both the small backwater towns and the metropolis of Dublin—the nooks and crannies, the oddities, the institutions. And her characters are fully grown from the stock characters they’re related to—we’ve all known a Benny, the chubby girl who finds the self-confidence she’s not getting from society through a strength she never realized she had (Circle of Friends) or a Clara, the cardiologist whose own heart needs some healing (Heart and Soul), or perhaps a Cathy (Scarlet Feather), a young woman from a poor family who spends her life battling her way upward socially and professionally with great success. You can find countless characters just like these in countless novels, but Binchy always managed to make them special somehow by growing them beyond the boundaries that should limit them. I got to actually care about a good many of them (and one of them I loved so much that when she killed him off in a subsequent novel, I was pissed) and their romances and problems and struggles just to get through life. Not much extraordinary happens in Binchy’s books—people just live their lives. Maybe that’s also an attraction, why they’re so comfortable to settle in with. Sometimes you don’t want space aliens or telepathic dolphins or a great detective. Sometimes you just want to see someone else struggling the way you do.
Mostly, for me, it’s the joy within the characters that’s ultimately so rewarding—the young doctor who calmly deals with distraught patients, or the Polish immigrant who is willing to do any job, no matter how menial, to make her way in her new homeland. A woman discovering love—and the attendant heartbreak that goes with it—for the first time. Or a middle-aged woman who finds her soul mate in a man whose life is falling apart. A pair of twins whose own family is in such tatters that they’re left to fend for themselves at a young age, only to find support and guidance from an unexpected source.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about any of that, but Binchy has a way of telling these stories without going overboard—there’s no maudlin sympathy, for example. That’s just the way things are. Things might be rough, but you deal with them and get on with your life. The narratives are large and sweeping, featuring many characters, and in her later books, a cast of reoccurring characters (Muttie Scarlet, the twins Simon and Maud, Signora and Aidan Dunne, and many others) and locations (St. Jarleth’s Crescent, a heart clinic, Quentin’s Restaurant) provide a series-like thread without in anyway limiting the scope of the books. New characters can come and go, but the old familiar friends and places provide the foundation.
None of that would work if Binchy weren’t so clearly fond of her characters and Ireland itself. The later books really are like visiting friends, and her earlier ones are so well-done you wish they wouldn’t end. There are only a handful of malicious characters in these books, and they get the come-uppance they deserve every time, which is so very satisfying. If you’re having a crummy day, a trip to Binchy’s Ireland is a calming tonic—there is laughter, there is love, and there are always just desserts. Can’t ask for more than that.
Binchy’s final novel, Minding Frankie, is set in her St. Jarleth Crescent world, a world which was introduced in Scarlet Feather in 2000, but which also incorporates a few characters from the two novels previous to it. But her earlier books, which are all still in print, such as Penny Candle, Circle of Friends, and The Glass Lake, are also well worth a read. Her final book, A Week in Winter, is tentatively scheduled for posthumous publication in early 2013. While I am grateful that there will be one more book forthcoming, I am also saddened that it will be the last from an author who has given me uncountable hours of pleasure for the past 25 years. Thank you, Maeve.