Maeve Binchy Critical Essays

Introduction

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.”