Maeve Binchy Essay - Critical Essays

Binchy, Maeve


Maeve Binchy 1940-

Irish novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Binchy's career through 2000.

Binchy is a prolific and commercially popular writer whose books have been translated into twelve languages and are embraced throughout the world. Though each of her books is set in Ireland, her works enjoy a universal popularity that critics attribute to Binchy's expansive storytelling and her astute characterizations.

Biographical Information

Binchy was born in Dalkey, Ireland, in 1940. She attended a Catholic girls' school and then graduated from University College in Dublin. After receiving her degree, she began teaching history and Latin at a Catholic girls' school. Subsequently she taught French at a Jewish school in Dublin. In appreciation for her work, the parents of her students at the Dublin school presented her with the gift of a trip to Israel. While in Israel, Binchy sent a letter to her parents describing life in a kibbutz which her father submitted to the Irish Independent. The letter was published, and Binchy discovered her talent for writing. Eventually she began writing a weekly column for the Irish Times, which she continues today. Much of her newspaper writing is feminist in nature and addresses women's issues in Ireland, for which there had never existed a forum before her column. Binchy began to write short stories and novels after her career with the Irish Times blossomed. She has also written two plays and a teleplay, and her novel Circle of Friends (1990) was made into a feature film. She is married to writer Gordon Snell and lives in the village in which she grew up.

Major Works

All of Binchy's novels are set in Ireland, usually in a small town. Many of her heroines share her experiences of growing up in Ireland during the 1950s. Her first novel, Light a Penny Candle (1982), is set in the small Irish town of Kilgarret and illuminates the stifling lack of privacy typical of small-town life. The narrative follows the friendship of two women as they grow into adulthood and confront family conflicts, love affairs, and failed marriages. The short-story collection The Lilac Bus (1984) revolves around a bus ride shared by eight people travelling from Dublin to their home villages. The first group of stories focuses on each individual's adventures during their weekend at home. The stories demonstrate a community's interconnectedness by main characters from one story appearing as secondary characters in another. The second group of stories of the collection is set in Dublin. “Flat in Ringsend” traces a young girl's first fearful weeks of living in a big city after moving from the country. Each story in the second group stands on its own, in contrast to the interconnectivity of the first group, highlighting the isolation of life in the city. Silver Wedding (1988) recounts the life story of Desmond and Deirdre Doyle who, after twenty-five years of marriage, can only pretend they are happy. Circle of Friends explores the lives of Benny Hogan and Eve Malone as they grow up in Knockglen, Ireland, in the 1950s. Benny is a large girl, the daughter of doting, overprotective parents, who is often ridiculed because of her size. Eve, an orphan raised in the local convent, is fiercely loyal to Benny. The girls attend university in Dublin and are exposed to circumstances that cause them to question their small-town values. In The Glass Lake (1995) Kit McMahon's mother, Helen, disappears. When the family's boat is found at the edge of a lake, Helen is presumed dead. Kit finds the letter her mother left behind and assumes it is a suicide note. Fearing her mother will not be properly buried, Kit burns the letter. Years later, Kit discovers that the letter was written to inform the family that Helen was going to live with her lover in London. Subsequently, Kit and Helen attempt to rebuild their broken relationship. Tara Road (1999) examines two women facing troubled lives. Ria Lynch, an Irish woman, believes she has led a charmed life with her husband, two children, and her fashionable house. She discovers her error when her husband reveals that he is leaving her to begin a family with another woman. Marilyn Vine, an American woman, is grieving the death of her teenage son. The women decide to swap houses for two months, and they immerse themselves in each other's lives. In the process, they manage to learn more about their own lives and themselves.

Critical Reception

Binchy's work has gained a loyal following and met with much critical praise. While her readership is primarily female, reviewers generally assert that her fiction typically rises above the romance genre's formulaic plots and characters. One of the features that sets her work apart is the inclusion of feminist themes and strong female protagonists who take charge of their lives during difficult circumstances. Some critics deride Binchy's work for its lack of plausibility and happy endings that occasionally seem forced. Several critics have commended the understated way in which Binchy deals with sexuality in her work and have complimented her on her ability to recreate the feeling of sexual repression in 1950s Ireland. While most critics find Binchy's work to be a light read, they nevertheless laud the quality of her writing style and praise her storytelling ability. Gabrielle Donnelly argued, “Maeve Binchy's literary style is both her blessing and her curse. Her blessing, because it is a joy, deliciously accessible, confident and light as a souffle; her curse, because too often it enables her to hide behind it, giving us works that are good enough—she is not capable of writing badly—but by no means as good as they could be.” Many critics note the familiarity and sense of community in Binchy's work, praising her characters as well-drawn and intricately connected. In discussing Binchy's characterization in Circle of Friends, Anna Murdoch stated, “All these people, lovingly created and real, breathed into life by Binchy's insights into the human heart, will become part of your own memories.”

Principal Works

My First Book (journalism) 1974

The Central Line: Stories of Big City Life (short stories) 1978

Maeve's Diary (journalism) 1979

Victoria Line (short stories) 1980

Light a Penny Candle (novel) 1982

Maeve Binchy's Dublin Four (short stories) 1982

The Lilac Bus: Stories (short stories) 1984

Echoes (novel) 1985

Firefly Summer (novel) 1987

Silver Wedding (novel) 1988

Circle of Friends (novel) 1990

The Copper Beech (novel) 1992

The Glass Lake (novel) 1995

Evening Class (novel) 1996

This Year It Will Be Different and Other Stories: A Christmas Treasury (short stories) 1996

The Return Journey (short stories) 1998

Tara Road (novel) 1999

Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel [contributor; edited by Dermot Bolger] (short stories) 2000

Scarlet Feather (novel) 2000


Dennis Drabelle (review date 1 May 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Light a Penny Candle, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 13, No. 18, May 1, 1983, p. 10.

[In the following review, Drabelle offers a positive assessment of Light a Penny Candle, but argues that the novel drags toward the end.]

[Light a Penny Candle] is worth reading for its insults alone. Much of it takes place in the clannish Irish village of Kilgarret, where—abstinence being the only permissible birth-control method—the field of sibling rivalry can expand to near-geopolitical proportions. In this setting privacy is harder to maintain than prosperity, and the frustrated inhabitants cope with their confinement by lashing...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Susan Dooley (review date 11 September 1989)

SOURCE: “The Great Pretenders: Maeve Binchy's Vivid Family of Characters,” in Washington Post Book World, September 11, 1989, p. D3.

[In the following positive review, Dooley lauds Binchy's characterization in Silver Wedding.]

[In Silver Wedding,] Desmond Doyle, meek and mild and married almost 25 years to Deirdre O'Hagan, remembers a promise he made to her. He would be a success, he had vowed. He would show her stiff-necked and proper Dublin parents that a poor boy from a stony farm in the west of Ireland could make good.

He hadn't, of course, though they pretended he had. They pretended also that their son Brendan hadn't fled the suburban...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Carolyn See (review date 14 January 1991)

SOURCE: “Subversive Lessons in a Circle of Friends,” in Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1991, p. E3.

[In the following positive review, See argues that Circle of Friends is a “subversive” and “inventive” novel.]

Most novels—wittingly or not—present themselves as more than they are: A love story will play out against a war; a historical novel has “history” to jack it up into respectability.

But Circle of Friends presents itself as something less than it is: Just another tale of two girls growing up in the 1950s in a tiny Irish village, and coming of age during their first university year in Dublin. (Personally...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Susan Dooley (review date 7 November 1991)

SOURCE: “Binchy's Bumpy ‘Bus’ Ride,” in Washington Post Book World, November 7, 1991, p. C3.

[In the following mixed review, Dooley asserts that Binchy lacks sympathy for the characters in The Lilac Bus.]

Along the roads of Ireland are signs bearing big, black dots—a reminder to those driving by that at this spot an automobile skidded or smashed and a soul went shooting up to Heaven. Ireland is a country that keeps track of its disasters.

Disasters there have always been, adding themselves up through centuries of poverty and repressive English rule, until the people learned how to turn in on themselves, to become secretive in order to...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Carolyn See (review date 25 November 1991)

SOURCE: “Those Big City Lights vs. Life in the Countryside,” in Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1991, p. E6.

[In the following review, See argues that the main theme of both Circle of Friends and The Lilac Bus is the tension between life in Dublin versus life in the surrounding rural villages.]

In different times, Ireland had James Joyce as its dour spokesman; now, the people who really speak for that sad and lovely isle are the lyrical, metaphysical Van-the-Man Morrison, and—far more down to earth—the prolific novelist, Maeve Binchy.

This writer has zigzagged from earlier work that is frankly “women's fiction,”...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Maeve Binchy with Katharine Weber (interview date 26 October 1992)

SOURCE: “Maeve Binchy,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 47, October 26, 1992, pp. 42, 44.

[In the following interview, Binchy discusses her childhood in Ireland, her publishing history, and her writing style.]

“Maeve's already here,” says the desk clerk at Arbutus Lodge in Cork City, where PW is meeting Ireland's bestselling and most beloved living author. Maeve Binchy has driven down from Dublin this morning, and as we introduce ourselves she explains with an infectious laugh that she's early since she allowed extra time, “because I'm a terrible driver. I only got my license four years ago, if you can imagine that. Most people won't admit to being...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)

Maeve Binchy (essay date July 1993)

SOURCE: “Gold at the Rainbow's End,” in Books, Vol. 7, No. 4, July, 1993, p. 4.

[In the following essay, Binchy discusses her relationship with and the inspiration that she draws from her homeland, Ireland.]

Maeve Binchy's newest bestseller [The Copper Beech] follows the fortunes of eight children who carve their names on the copper beech tree behind the school in Shancarrig. Twenty years later, they gather to see the school house sold at auction. For each, their home town holds special memories—some too private ever to be told. With her warmth and humour, Maeve Binchy uncovers long-hidden secrets and shows how extraordinary stories can...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 16 September 1994)

SOURCE: “A Woman Away,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4772, September 16, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Craig offers a negative assessment of The Glass Lake.]

At the centre of Maeve Binchy's plot [in The Glass Lake] is a burned letter—a device well established for giving an askew turn to events that might otherwise have proceeded straightforwardly. It is 1952, and we are in a sleepy Irish town called Lough Glass, which really means “the green lake,” though the descriptive word is picturesquely mistranslated as “glass,” giving rise to romantic reflections on the subject of reflections. Kit McMahon is the chemist's daughter in Lough...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Susan Dooley (review date 7 March 1995)

SOURCE: “Death and Life in Ireland,” in Washington Post Book World, March 7, 1995, p. E2.

[In the following review, Dooley offers a mixed assessment of The Glass Lake.]

Reading a Maeve Binchy novel is as cozy and comforting as climbing into a warm bed on a cold night. Bad things happen to her people and sad things, too, but in Binchy's hands these become lessons learned and wisdom gained. As in previous novels, her story [in The Glass Lake] revolves around a small Irish village, a closely interwoven world where security is the prize and privacy the price. You'll not find any of these villagers embracing the casual confessional style of TV talk shows,...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Maeve Binchy with Mike Burns (interview date April 1995)

SOURCE: “Maeve Binchy,” in Europe, Vol. 345, April, 1995, pp. 22–25.

[In the following interview, Binchy discusses her novels, her success with writing, and her journalism background.]

The Irish author Maeve Binchy has a long list of international best-sellers to her name (Light a Penny Candle, London Transports, Firefly Summer, Silver Wedding, The Lilac Bus). Her latest book The Glass Lake was published last month in the U. S. by Delacorte Press.

Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide. A number have been made into films, including Circle of Friends, which has just been released in the...

(The entire section is 3203 words.)

Mary Kay Zuravleff (review date 2 March 1997)

SOURCE: “A Dublin Commedia dell'Arte,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVII, No. 9, March 2, 1997, p. 5.

[In the following review of Evening Class, Zuravleff argues that—although Binchy is a skilled author—the threads between the different stories in the novel are weak.]

I read [Evening Class] without ceasing—even going so far as to weight it open with a bag of beans at the breakfast table—which explains why I feel a bit highbrow about criticizing it. Obviously, capturing and sustaining a reader's attention require talent, and Maeve Binchy, in her 11th book, Evening Class, shows herself to be a gifted storyteller. If it is true...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Mona Knapp (review date Winter 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Evening Class, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, p. 133.

[In the following review, Knapp offers a positive assessment of Evening Class, but notes that several of the situations in the novel seem contrived and implausible.]

Maeve Binchy's prolific pen has produced a book nearly every year since 1983, including two plays, three volumes of short stories, and close to a dozen novels, of which Circle of Friends (1991) has become widely known through a recent screen adaptation. Binchy's fictional world is comfortably rooted in Irish culture, portrayed as endearing and warmly human (an interesting contrast, for...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Kim Campbell (review date 16 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Short Stories with a Romantic Touch,” in Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 1998, p. 8.

[In the following review, Campbell offers a positive assessment of The Return Journey.]

You've brushed your teeth and climbed into bed, and now comes the big decision: What to read before drifting off to sleep? If brevity is key, Irish author Maeve Binchy's latest collection makes the choice a little easier.

The Return Journey is full of short stories—bite-size reads, really—none of which tops 20 pages. These European-flavored tales all feature a trip of some kind. And, as always with Binchy, there are plenty of relationships (she is,...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

Kim Campbell (review date 11 March 1999)

SOURCE: “A Healing House Swap after Tragedy,” in Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 1999, p. 19.

[In the following review, Campbell offers a mixed assessment of Tara Road, calling the novel “an uncomplicated tale.”]

Diet Coke is a herald of new literature, it seems.

An excerpt from Maeve Binchy's latest novel, Tara Road, has been included with 12-packs in recent weeks. The palm-sized insert intends to lure readers into the world of two women who decide to swap houses after tragedies in their lives.

But the book, a fast read ideal for the beach or a ski lodge, doesn't cut to the chase as quickly as its soda-can...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Michele Slung (review date 21 March 1999)

SOURCE: “A House Divided,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXIX, No. 12, March 21, 1999, p. 6.

[In the following review, Slung offers a mixed assessment of Tara Road, complaining that the characters and situations of the novel are less compelling than those of her earlier works.]

The bad things that happen to good people are the building blocks of domestic fiction. Husbands and wives wake up strangers, friends betray one another, children die, luck deserts us. As we know, though, culture can influence the way the tale is told, in addition to the outcome.

For Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, for example, the notion of community is paramount....

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Maeve Binchy with Dawn Simonds Ramirez (interview date April 1999)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Maeve Binchy,” in Writer's Digest, Vol. 79, No. 4, April, 1999, p. 6.

[In the following interview, Binchy discusses her writing process and Tara Road.]

Maeve Binchy proved as gracious and charming as her characters when she spoke about her latest book, Tara Road.

[Ramirez:] What's a typical writing day like?

[Binchy:] We live in a very small place in Ireland called Dockey, where I grew up. I'm married to a writer, Gordon Snell, and we regard writing like a job. We race up the stairs at 8 the morning when we have to be at our desks. We rush around the place and say “Gosh, we'll be...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Jose Lanters (review date Winter 2000)

SOURCE: A review of Tara Road, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 2000, p. 72.

[In the following review, Lanters offers a mixed assessment of Tara Road, faulting the novel for not being emotionally or intellectually challenging.]

The dust jacket describes Tara Road as “a moving story rendered with the deft touch of a master artisan”—a reasonably fair assessment of a book which ranks somewhere between a classy soap opera and a romance novel, complete with gratuitous fortune-telling gypsy woman. The main part of the story revolves around two women, one American, one Irish, in whose lives unexpected tragedy has struck. Marilyn,...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Maeve Binchy with Lewis Burke Frumkes (interview date February 2000)

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Maeve Binchy,” in Writer, Vol. 113, No. 2, February, 2000, pp. 14–15.

[In the following interview, Binchy discusses Tara Road, her career, and Irish literature as a whole.]

Maeve Binchy is the author of Light a Penny Candle, Evening Class, The Glass Lake, The Copper Beech, The Lilac Bus, Circle of Friends, Silver Wedding, Firefly Summer, Echoes, three volumes of short stories, two plays, and a teleplay, which won three awards at the Prague Film Festival. Her latest book, Tara Road, is an Oprah Book Club selection.

[Frumkes:] Maeve,...

(The entire section is 1278 words.)

Cristina Odone (essay date 8 May 2000)

SOURCE: “Don't Allow the Clitterati to Make You Feel Inadequate,” in New Statesman, Vol. 129, No. 4485, May 8, 2000, p. 24.

[In the following essay, Odone discusses how Binchy deals with male and female sexuality in her writing.]

The news that Maeve Binchy, Britain's most popular female novelist, is to hang up her pen, has plunged me into despair. Binchy was no Tolstoy, but she served a key social role. She fought the conspiracy to make us, the female readers, feel hopelessly inadequate.

Read trendy young scribblers such as Elizabeth Wurtzel, who has just published a guide to contemporary sexual mores called The Bitch Rules, and you'll see...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Further Reading


Binchy, Maeve with Cathy Edwards. “Local Heroine.” San Francisco Review of Books 17, No. 3 (March 1992): 6–7.

Binchy discusses her journalist background and her views on feminism.

Donnelly, Gabrielle. “Maeve Binchy's Stories: Good Fun and Potential Greatness.” Chicago Tribune Books (27 October 1991): 3.

Donnelly offers a positive assessment of The Lilac Bus, but notes that some of the stories are stronger than others.

Mills, Nancy. “Circle of Fans.” Chicago Tribune, No. 85 (26 March 1995): 28.

Mills discusses the popularity of Binchy's...

(The entire section is 285 words.)