Maeve Binchy Criticism

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Dennis Drabelle (review date 1 May 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 out at one another.

Some of the punchiest remarks are directed to and from Eamonn O'Connor, a mid-level brother in one of the town's leading families. His sister Maureen finally became engaged to Brendan Daly after a non-whirlwind courtship. “Their walking-out period had been considered long even by Kilgarret standards. Eammon had heard a joke about them; he heard that Brendan had finally plucked up courage to ask Maureen and he had said, ‘Would you like to be buried with my people?’ He had thought it was great, and he kept telling everyone, until his father had told him to shut his big ignorant mouth.”

Not long afterward Eamonn receives another comeuppance. When he refuses to inscribe a birthday card to Elizabeth White, the English girl who boarded with the family during World War II, his mother excoriates him. “‘I buy the card, I post it, I remember the date. I'm asking you to put your great ham hand around a pen and write two lines and your thick, ignorant signature …’”

Eamonn bows beneath the assault and cranks up his ham hand. This is typical of male-female relationships in the novel. With rare exceptions the men are shallow, ineffectual, or both. The best of them remind one of John Leonard's remark about New York men, who “tend to be little boys, with wooden swords.” The worst, Elizabeth's father, a man “who couldn't make up his own mind about what side of the cornflake bowl he should face towards him,” is one of the most memorable zeroes in fiction. In contrast, Elizabeth and Aisling (pronounced Ashleen) O'Connor, best friends since sharing a room during the war, develop from winsome lasses into resolute, unorthodox women.

Maeve Binchy grew up in an Irish village herself and now divides her time between it and London, where she writes a column for The Irish Times. This is her first novel, but its narrative brio seems the work of a veteran. Only in the last section, which takes the two friends up to 1960 and a predictably failed marriage apiece, does Binchy's energy flag. By then so has the light implicit in the title, which refers to a Catholic devotional practice: Binchy holds out little hope that Elizabeth or Aisling will come across a man who measures up to her. Even so, with its barreling plot and clamorous characters, Light a Penny Candle is a lilting book.

Susan Dooley (review date 11 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 house outside London to return to the impoverished beauty of the family farm, and pretended that their daughter, Helen, was a member of a convent rather than hovering on the edges of the religious community, banging away to get in.

For all those 25 years, Desmond and Deirdre have turned a false face to the world, determined to show that their hasty London wedding was no mistake. And...

(The entire section is 16,911 words.)