Dennis Drabelle (review date 1 May 1983)

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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.

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[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)

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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 as their three children arrived, they had been enlisted in the plot, marched onto the stage as actors in the happy drama of Desmond and Deirdre.

“They always seemed to be hiding something from somebody. From the neighbors, from people at school, from people in the parish,” thinks Brendan, looking back on the life he has fled. “And especially from everyone back in Ireland. Don't tell this to Grannie O'Hagan, and never let a word of that be said in front of Grandpa Doyle” Endless instructions as to what to conceal, until Brendan briefly shocks his parents into silence with his innocent query: “Are we rich like we're pretending to Grannie O'Hagan, or are we poor like we're pretending to Uncle Vincent and Grandpa Doyle?”

The need to keep up appearances has been spooned into the children from their earliest days, so that when daughter Anna, on her only visit to the farm in the west of Ireland, saw sheep falling over and lying on their backs, “had asked was it only Uncle Vincent's sheep that did this or was it all sheep. She didn't want to speak about it when she got back to London in case it was just a habit of the Doyles' sheep. Vincent had given her a funny look but had said quite agreeably that no harm could come from admitting that sheep fell over, it was a fairly common occurrence in the breed, even in England.”

As Anna puts together the guest list for her parents' 25th-anniversary celebration, Maeve Binchy takes the characters up, one at a time, and builds the story of each into the story of all. There is Anna, the oldest, the sensible one who will tire of pretense and get her happy ending; Brendan, already escaped into a world whose silence he prefers to lies; and Helen, a character as comic as she is pathetic, a sweet fool whose every action causes disaster for someone else. There is Desmond, who finally remembers that before he made the promise that bound him to a lonely life, he had a dream; and Father Hurley, the priest who married the Doyles, who learns what it can cost to keep up appearances.

As always, Binchy's characters are remarkable for their rightness, from the blind and devastating innocence of Helen to the calculated manipulations of Frank Quigley, the best man who has become the success Desmond meant to be.

In some ways, the most interesting character is Deirdre, because she alone seems incapable of change, locked forever in the role she chose when she chose Desmond Doyle. It is Deirdre who is the catalyst; like a log thrown across a railroad track, she derails everything and, like the log, is senseless of consequence.

Those who have been derailed are not senseless of consequence, and one by one they find a better way of getting on. It is only Deirdre who remains frozen in the life she invented 25 years before. The reader knows that even a devastating lunch with her mother, when Deirdre realizes that for years she has been masquerading success for a woman who simply hoped she was happy, will not change her. Deirdre does not even hear her mother's parting words, the words around which Binchy has woven her wonderfully readable novel: “I'm sorry that I gave you no notion of happiness. Only how to pretend you are happy and that's no gift at all. It's a burden for your back.”

Carolyn See (review date 14 January 1991)

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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 I'd run from that description, but I hope you don't.) Circle of Friends is about commerce and freedom and happiness and friendship and love, and most of all, about how things work. It's daring, subversive, remarkably inventive.

In the little town of Knockglen, we first see Benny (short for Bernadette) celebrating her 10th birthday. She hopes for a pink velvet dress but gets a sweater and a skirt, not because her parents don't love her, but because she's a chunk of a child—not just fat, but big, husky, enormous. And, of course, labeled as such by the villagers.

On this birthday, Benny becomes friends with Eve, an orphan raised by nuns in the local convent. The waifish Eve is the offspring of a scandalous local marriage: The daughter of the nearest Protestant landowner who ran off with a lowly Catholic gardener. Both of these parents have died, but the Protestants who live in the Big House still lord it over the village in ever-more seedy splendor, while foisting poor Eve on the nuns.

(In the rest of this prologue we are introduced to a full set of characters who make up a Chaucerian Field of Folk. The nicest is Mother Francis, who loves Eve like her own daughter. The worst is craven, mean-spirited Sean Walsh, a nasty dweeb who's hired by Benny's father to help in their store and who plans to marry chunky Benny as soon as she grows up so that he can inherit the store.)

Flash forward eight years. Benny is still big. Eve is still poor as stones, but after an awful week in a Dublin convent she asks her Protestant family to put her through university (tuition only—she'll work for her own room and board in the city). Then a great, 400-page sorting out begins. The two girls meet Nan, a blond beauty who gets what she want through her looks. Yes, it's a stereotype, but one that functions. Nan comes from a drunken home and has a million calculated plans for her escape up the closed Irish social strata. And Nan, because she thinks about this stuff 24 hours a day, teaches the naive Benny and Eve how things work.

Nan's great weapons are intelligence and beauty. Benny and Eve make do with loyalty and friendship. Back in Knockglen, two young people from the tradesman classes have moved in with their respective aunt and uncle. Pre-hippies Fonsie and Clodagh believe in commerce for its own sake, in flash and dash and fun.

For her first college dance, Benny goes to Clodagh to have a dress made. The crowd of Dublin eligible bachelors is made to rethink its priorities, because even though Benny is maybe 5 feet, 10 inches and 180 pounds, she has an astonishing chest! And she's funny and nice.

In fate's first throw of the dice Benny wins Jack Foley, the handsomest man in college. But here's where it gets interesting. Is “love” what life is about? Is marriage the cat's meow? Forget what women want—do men even want it? What if people got together for fun instead of love? What if friendship were the highest of all values?

Back in Knockglen the idea of commerce is examined in the same way. The Protestant man in the Big House sells his life and soul to get his house renovated. The dweebish Sean Walsh lies and cheats and steals and never has any fun as he plots to trap the now-majestic Benny into a loveless marriage. But the raffish Clodagh and Fonsie take their shops and make them into wonderful places to play.

This is a madly subversive book. It purports to answer such harmless questions as: “What shall I wear?” but is, in fact, an almost perfect handbook on: “How shall I live?”

Susan Dooley (review date 7 November 1991)

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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 survive. Secrets, to remain such, must be held by a closed circle, and over time Ireland has become full of boundaries. These enclosures, while helping the group to endure, often have served to suffocate the individual, who learned early on that bad behavior did not escape censure and good behavior did not save one from criticism.

Many Irish writers focus on that sense of suffocation, on the rigid religious strictures and the airlessness of villages where those doomed to be different watch the future ebb away. In The Lilac Bus, Maeve Binchy sees that too, but she also sees that what is suffocation for some can, for others, be security.

The people who ride the Lilac Bus each weekend leave the looseness of their Dublin lives to return to the village of Rathdoon. Tom, mysterious, always in motion from this job to that, had one day painted his mini-van purple and then, one thing leading to another, decided to use it to make a little money, transporting fellow villagers home for the weekend.

Binchy follows the eight people who ride the bus each week: Nancy, a young woman with penny-pinching ways who can change her method but not her meanness; Dee, the doctor's daughter who comes home to the village to avoid brooding about her married lover; Rupert, visiting an ailing father and torn by doubts about the fidelity of his gay lover; Judy, a witch with an unhappy past; Mikey, an Irish bachelor who is suddenly given the gift of a family; Kev, a young man so secretive that he can be sucked into and out of a gang of thieves without ever letting on; Celia, whose mother, keeper of the local pub, has developed too great an interest in her own inventory; and Tom, the driver, a kind man who sees the others' problems but never reveals his own.

In all her books, Binchy has been extremely good at developing character, and here she does it by letting each story stumble into the next, gradually revealing not only the way each person sees himself or herself but also how they are seen by others. In the process she connects them, taking them beyond the bus and braiding them into the broader world of the village.

In the first half of The Lilac Bus, this winding together of characters creates a common community. In the second half, Binchy takes the reader into Dublin, and here each of the stories is self-contained. Perhaps that is deliberate, an imitation of the way a city keeps people independent of one another, but it is a style that leads Binchy to write without sympathy for her characters.

The first and longest of the pieces, “Dinner in Donnybrook,” is about the revenge of a betrayed wife. Carmel is a woman so slack of mind and of spirit that even her own children pity her. Everyone underestimates her, and because no one can see who she really is, she is able to destroy her husband's long-term love affair.

“Flat in Ringsend” is a more sympathetic story about a young village woman on her own in Dublin and the fear and isolation she feels. Unlike most of the stories in this section, it hints of a happy ending. Happy endings are something the reader usually gets from Maeve Binchy—not wild and improbable ascensions into joy, but the small and valuable understandings that lighten a life and make it easier to live.

But such illuminations are denied to most of the characters in the second half of the book. They seem created to illustrate situations rather than enlighten them. “Unmarried and pregnant,” thinks the writer and produces one story. “Husband who drinks,” and out comes another.

It's not that these stories are bad, but that the reader has come to expect more from the author, who usually writes with sympathy about ordinary people and how the boundaries that hold people in can also keep the scary things out.

Carolyn See (review date 25 November 1991)

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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,” romantic stuff, very heavy on love, to a more astringent, common-sensical, journalistic view of what it means to be Irish in these days—and it's not all good news.

In her last ambitious novel, Circle of Friends, two plots coiled within each other. The first, the conventional “women's” stuff, concerned the plight of a village girl grown—not fat, but large—and thus doomed to be passed over in the narrow social life in which she found herself.

Half that story was concerned with such mundane things as how to dress if you are the size of a heifer, and just how far a “good personality”—that eternal consolation of the unattractive girl—can take you.

But the other half of Circle of Friends concerned the tension between Dublin and all the out-of-the-way villages that feed into that capital, and how, in many villages, the rural economy has jump-started itself, making these tiny communities the idyllic refuges they always should have been.

The Lilac Bus continues to explore this dynamic—looking at the reasons why young people have to get away from stifling small towns to live a life of comparative freedom in Dublin but observing the village ties that bind: the obligations, the seductions, the pure destiny of a permanent “home” and all that “home” means.

Eight people take a lilac minivan from a street corner in Dublin every Friday night and, after several hours, they land in their tiny hometown of Rathdoon. Then, on Sunday evenings, the same eight are re-deposited back in the city.

The seven passengers and their driver all, in effect, live double lives. One girl is a miser. One boy is in trouble with the law. Another young man is gay but can't let his parents in the village know it. Another woman has an alcoholic mother; another man, a bulimic sister.

All eight suffer from fairly severe loneliness, and some of them seem suspiciously stereotypical.

But all these problems hark back to Circle of Friends and the invisible but terribly strong ties that hold city and countryside together.

The last third of this book switches to Dublin itself, and four more character sketches.

Again, the point of comparison is not James Joyce's Dubliners but Van Morrison's lyrical musings on “You and I and Nature, Together, in the Garden.” “Oh, yeah?” Maeve Binchy seems to reply, “Some garden!”

The tyranny of the church, the hypnotism of strong drink, the lack of decent jobs, the obsession with appearances that demands double lives—all these are Binchy's concerns in this collection. She loves Ireland, but she deplores its faults.

Taken together, she and Van Morrison show us that country's lyrical soul lodged uncomfortably in a sour, grubby, physical body. Real life is tougher, Binchy says, than the poets will ever admit.

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

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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 bad drivers—they would sooner tell you they're bad in bed!”

Binchy in the flesh (of which there is an ample amount on her six-foot frame) is a beguiling and irrepressible storyteller. Her focus is acute and her smile is genuine. Conversation is an enthusiastic, generous flow of anecdotes and observations, punctuated by quips, queries and conspiratorial asides. Not only is Binchy one to suffer fools gladly—she would do so graciously.

Binchy's fifth novel, The Copper Beech, was published in September in Great Britain and Ireland by Orion, and will be out in the U.S. next month from Delacorte. This more or less simultaneous publication on both sides of the Atlantic is a first for Binchy, who calls it “a huge vote of confidence” on the part of Delacorte. The success of her bestselling previous novel, Circle of Friends (1991), was undoubtedly a factor. Last year's invitation to lunch at the White House with Barbara Bush, who has called Binchy her favorite author, probably didn't hurt sales either.

Additionally, the Dell paperback of The Lilac Bus (also a 1991 Delacorte hardcover), a collection of stories which was made into a British TV film last year, hit the paperback bestsellers list after its publication this past July.

The Copper Beech is a series of linked stories about the lives of characters who have shared years in a small schoolhouse in the Irish village of Shancarrig. Their romances, secrets, betrayals and triumphs are told with a vivid charm; the result is a lively portrait of the entire village.

With a whopping first printing of 160,000 copies, The Copper Beech is a BOMC [Book of the Month Club] main selection and a Time-Life Book Digest Condensed Book. First serial rights have gone to Good Housekeeping. Meanwhile, Binchy remains notably modest and easy to work with. Jackie Farber, her editor at Delacorte, calls their relationship “a joyful experience.”

Binchy, now 52, has developed a style that has made her four previous novels, three collections of stories, and three plays extraordinarily successful. Her audience, she has discovered, “is grateful for the absence of sex and violence. They're people who like being able to buy a book that will suit their mothers and their children.”

This distinction is inadvertent on Binchy's part. “It's just that I would be embarrassed to write about sex, and I wouldn't get it right. I try to write the way people talk, and I can't imagine talking with my friends about our sex lives the way we talk about our feelings, and wishes, and disappointments.”

Binchy recalls a British editor's observation that in her books everybody is obsessed with sex but nobody ever actually has any. “I was thrilled, because I knew that I had got the '50s right!”

What Binchy does write about is life in Ireland and England, and she does it in a way that has universal appeal. Her books have been translated into six languages; she loves the story about the French translator who kept calling the Irish consulate in Paris with questions like “Is eejit stronger or less strong than idiot?”

She writes about romance, but her characters are realistic. “I don't have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.” Her characters tend to be her own vintage, she admits, because she knows all the details will be right. (“Having lived it, I've already done the research.”) Other themes common to her fiction include the contrast of small village to big city, the differences between England and Ireland, the hypocrisy of the powerful, and the constant issues of friendship and betrayal.

As Binchy and PW chat, Patsy Ryan, one of the lodge's proprietors, comes over to remind her that she taught with Patsy's sister in Cork years ago. “Oh yes!” Binchy exclaims. “I remember that we used to huddle together in a tiny lounge at the school—the room was so small one person had to breathe in if the other breathed out—united in our loathing of that frightful headmistress!”

It sounds like the beginning of a Maeve Binchy novel. Schools and schoolteachers often figure in her fiction; Binchy, born in 1940 in the village of Dalkey, outside Dublin, became a teacher after graduating from University College Dublin, and thought for several years that she had found her calling. But at 23, on a visit to Jerusalem that was a gift from the parents at a Jewish school in Dublin where she had taught, she lost what Christian faith she had had (and now calls herself “a collapsed Catholic”) when she visited the site of the Last Supper, and realized that “none of it was true.” This revelation made her question other assumptions about her life.

Her letters home to her father—she had now joined a kibbutz—were so fascinatingly full of her observations about kibbutz life and the threat of war that he submitted one to the Irish Independent, which printed it. Binchy thought she “had arrived,” as the article paid £18 and she had been earning a weekly £16 teaching. But it was four years before she was able to break into the Irish Times with some freelance articles, and finally a job, in 1969. Today, she is a fixture there, and writes a twice-weekly column and occasional celebrity interviews.

Two collections of her Irish Times pieces were published in the early '70s, My First Book and Maeve's Diary (which Binchy recalls was humiliatingly remaindered for five pence), but thoughts of writing fiction didn't surface until Binchy's husband, former BBC commentator and writer Gordon Snell, encouraged her to give it a try. (They've lived together, in London and Dublin, since 1973, and were married in 1975.)

Her first fiction consisted of interlocking short stories. Two collections, Victoria Line and Central Line, were moderately successful, selling 5,000 and 4,000 copies respectively. (Dell issued them here in 1986 in a single volume, entitled London Transports.)

Binchy's agent, Christine Green, urged her to produce her first novel, suggesting that she write about what she knew best. That, she realized, was “the differences between the Irish and the English.” She was living in London at the time, and she wrote for the Irish Times during the week while working on what was to become Light a Penny Candle on weekends.

Green, who Binchy says “typed the manuscript herself, she believed in it so much,” first sold it for £5000 to a fiction editor at MacDonalds, Rosemary Cheetham. (Cheetham also discovered Colleen McCullough, who has since become a good friend of Binchy's.) When Cheetham moved to a fledgling publishing venture, Century, Binchy agreed to repay the MacDonalds advance and follow her. Light a Penny Candle was the first book Century published.

Binchy has stayed loyal to Cheetham through Century/Hutchinson and Random/Century permutations, and now that Cheetham has moved to the new British house Orion, it seems a good omen that The Copper Beech is Orion's first title.

The prepublication paperback auction for Light a Penny Candle set a British record for a first novel at £52,000 from Coronet, the paperback arm of Hodder & Stoughton. (In the U.S., Light a Penny Candle was published by Viking in 1982, and in Dell paperback in 1989.) Binchy was stunned by the news, as she had hoped for “the amazing sum of £10,000 at most.” For a long while afterward she wondered “if it was all a mistake and I would have to give it back.”

A steady series of successes followed: Echoes (1985; 1989); Firefly Summer (1988; 1989); Silver Wedding (1989; 1990) and Circle of Friends, in 1991, her first American bestseller. On the other side of the ocean, Binchy has long been both a household name and a regular on bestseller lists. (In Ireland, the tiniest, barest shop stocked with little more than biscuits and tinned beans is likely to carry paperbacks by Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy.)

Binchy was apprehensive about her first author tour, for Light a Penny Candle. “A book signing is a masochist's dream,” she says with a chuckle. “There are so many potential humiliations. When I go into a bookshop for a signing, I still wonder, are all these people the relatives of the owner?”

She recalls arriving in Manchester, sympathetic about the sales rep's dilemma (“He probably thought, ‘God help us, some book by an Irish woman with no sex and no violence!’”). The rep, expecting her at the airport, had brought a carton of Penny Candle copies and spread them around the airport bookstall, promising the clerk to collect them after Binchy had come and gone. When he discovered that Binchy's plan was to arrive by train, he took another carton of Penny Candle and spread those books around the bookstall at the train station, explaining to that clerk as well that he would be back later to collect them.

What happened next, says Binchy, was his hysterical call to the head office to tell them they had a runaway bestseller on their hands. By the time Binchy's book signing was over and he had returned to both places to retrieve his books, they had all sold out.

Binchy's daily life hasn't changed much since her success, except that “obviously, we don't worry about money anymore.” The Snells maintain a habit from earlier days: they discuss money matters only on Saturdays. “Bills, checks, whatever, it all goes into a drawer until then,” she says.

Binchy and Snell are now making a trip around the world, with a stop to visit Colleen McCullough on Norfolk Island. “Your readers can imagine us together, two large, cheerful, bestselling authors in the South Pacific!” she says with glee. In January they return to their daily routine in Dalkey, the town from which Binchy couldn't wait to escape and to which she now escapes. (She and Snell have no children, but do have two very important cats who reside there, which makes Ireland their main residence.)

In Dalkey, they sit side by side at a large desk, sometimes for more than six hours daily, with two word processors “like twin pianos.” (Snell has become a successful writer of children's books.) “Anyone who sees this thinks we're mad,” says Binchy. “But the discipline of another writer sitting beside you makes you work.”

Binchy feels she has been blessed by enormous good fortune, despite crippling and painful arthritis, though she regrets that her parents didn't live to see her success. “I had a happy childhood, and they told me how marvelous I was all the time,” she says. She also recalls the way she would interrupt her father when he would start to tell her a bedtime story.

“He would say, ‘Hansel and Gretel were in the woods,’ and I would ask, ‘Where was I?’ And he would say, ‘You were right there behind the tree.’ I always wanted to be part of the story.”

Wishes like this one have abetted the creation of various characters who may seem all the more real because they have some basis in Binchy's own desires. “I would like to have been a really good teacher like Maddy in The Copper Beech. I would like to be Aisling in Penny Candle. I rewrote history when I had Benny in Circle of Friends have great success at the dance—I was an absolute failure at a similar dance! I was the most awful-looking person there, even though my parents had told me I looked great. I wore a terrible borrowed dress that had to be let out, and I had painted-on earrings, and blue ink ran down my neck, and no one danced with me.”

Perhaps that was the night a fiction writer was born; when the miserable, blue-inked, un-danced-with Maeve came home, and her parents inquired eagerly how it had gone, she recalls, “I told them it had all been absolutely marvelous. I couldn't bear to disappoint them, you see. So I made it all up, and described everything in glorious detail!”

Maeve Binchy (essay date July 1993)

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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 be found everywhere. Especially in Ireland, a country that holds a special place in her heart:

When I was young and anxious to see the whole world as soon as possible, I used to look with amazement at the visitors who came to Ireland to get away from rationing and have huge meals. Imagine, I used to think, these are people with money and free will. They could go anywhere they liked, and they came here. It seemed to prove the perversity of adults, and confirm the child's view that freedom is wasted on the old. Now, of course, I know what they came here for, and why they continue to come back. I don't regard it as a defeat to spend a holiday in my own land, I think of it as a treasure trove on my doorstep. Maturity brings great wisdom.

Ireland is a kind of mood, a feeling of being swept along. It's not restrictive, anyone can join in, and if you do join in you'll have a much better time. Take festivals now, I bet a lot of you wouldn't contemplate going to a festival unless you were in some way involved in whatever was being feasted. That is entirely the wrong attitude to have in Ireland.

Don't ask yourself questions like what on earth would you be doing at any particular event. Just trust me, the sense of being a part of it will overtake you. It's not an examination. Nobody is going to come along with a clipboard and interrogate you, asking what are your qualifications for signing up as a participant in the Dun Laoghaire Song Contest when you don't have a note in your head. They will know that you heard the place was great fun in festival week and wisely went along.

Even if you don't know one end of a horse from another you'd enjoy a race week in a small Irish town.

Or a music festival in the beautiful Adare manor, or a tour of the amazing Burren in County Clare, where flowers bloom that can carpet the barren rock lunar landscape in colours that look like pots of paint spilled at random. Or the Ballybunnion Bachelor Festival, for a laugh in a boisterous seaside resort …

Too noisy, you might say. Too much participation, too like Hi-de-Hi. Wrong! These are just a scaffolding to make sure you won't be left on the outside looking in. And why should the British be so afraid of being drawn into things anyway? Before Queen Victoria, the English were great fun. They were rumbustious, and tellers of tales, and old seadogs, and full of adventure. Surely one puritanical period in the nation's history is not going to keep their upper lips stiff and their personalities buttoned up?

I get the impression that very often British visitors are just waiting for someone to take their hand and lead them into the dance. And supposing they don't immediately take your hand … stretch out yours. The best way to get on in Ireland is to ask advice. You don't need to take it, in fact it would be impossible to take all of it and much of it will be conflicting. A great way to start is to say in a pub that you're a stranger here and you wonder what would be the best place to go to get an impression of the area. If I heard anyone say that, I'd leap from my seat with views, and so would everyone else. If I heard a man say it in County Clare I'd tell him he must go to Milltown Malbay and walk on the beach, and he must call in at the Cliffs of Moher just for the sensation, and then travel slowly the coast road from Lisdoonvama to Ballyvaghan. I'd tell him where to stop for lunch of lobster and where to look at the pottery and jewelry. In minutes I would be contradicted. What was I doing sending that man to all those touristy places? What he really needed to know was the name of the pub in Ennistimon where he'd hear the fiddle being played like an angel's song.

I did get my childhood wish. I saw, if not the whole wide world, then a great deal of it, all the places I wanted to go. And I loved most of it—the world that is. But the travel never made me restless or discontented. It didn't make home seem small and insignificant either. I didn't spend the time abroad comparing everywhere to Ireland and measuring it up—was it better or worse? It just made me able to look at Ireland without all the confusion of hoping others would like my land and being fearful that they might not like it enough. Now I realise that the sunsets in my own country are as dazzling as in any other, and that to look out on Roaring Water Bay in West Cork, or travel the road from Galway city to Clifden in the early morning sun is as good as you're going to get.

Patricia Craig (review date 16 September 1994)

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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 Glass who is leading a secure life, despite recurrent squabbles with her friend Cliona Kelly, until it dawns on her that her mother isn't quite like other people's mothers. Kit's mother has her own bedroom, for a start, and spends a lot of time walking by the lake shore. On top of that, Helen McMahon looks “more like a dancer than a mother,” and indeed it isn't long before she's waltzed out of Lough Glass altogether, though for some time it isn't clear whether she has drowned herself in the lake, or run away with a raggle-taggle gypsy-o.

The latter, or something very like it, is in fact the case; and being an honourable woman, Helen has left a letter for her husband apprising him of her intention. At this point, fate, or the well-meaning Kit, steps in to pervert the course of plausibility, and engender a great conglomerate of incident and intrigue: a chunky wodge of plot. Kit finds the letter, takes it for a suicide note and flings it in the fire. She's been listening to a sermon at school about the bodies of suicides being excluded from consecrated ground. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Helen is assumed to have drowned accidentally (didn't she even take a suitcase with her?), and when a body turns up conveniently decomposed it is buried in her name with the full approval of the Church. Helen, in the meantime, calling herself Lena Gray, is getting on well as a business-woman in London, running an employment agency, while her supposed husband, Louis Gray, has found a niche as a hotel manager. Their stories, and the stories of innumerable subsidiary characters, including half the population of Lough Glass, are then recounted assiduously.

What is it that gives works like The Glass Lake their appeal, or, in other words, what precipitates them on to the bestseller lists? You can't commend them for any refinements of style, or insights beyond the most superficial. They never put their finger on the smallest nuance of atmosphere or social usage. All their elements are magnified at the same time as being diminished, which produces a peculiar effect. They proceed by means of contrivance and truism. The Glass Lake contains a female hermit, a Sister Madeleine, whose function is to represent unconventional Christianity and come out with observations like, “People are special. They have their own lives in their souls to live.” It's also Sister Madeleine who remarks that, “Anything or anyone who is meant to be free will go,” causing young Kit to experience a prescient shiver.

Maeve Binchy has written a kind of updated East Lynne, with contemporary notions of tolerance and respect for the individual replacing the lurid axioms of the past. Her style is bland and flat, where Mrs. Henry Wood's is overwrought. But there are moments when she seems to have absorbed the old conventions so thoroughly that you're half expecting someone to burst out with, “Dead, dead and never called me mother!”

Susan Dooley (review date 7 March 1995)

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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, publicly explaining why they beat their wives, abuse their children, take a little dope or steal a lot of dough.

The villagers mark down the girl whose baby comes too soon. They pity the drunkard's wife and watch his children for signs of similar weakness. It is each family's shame that news of what they most want to conceal will spread rapidly from house to house.

Twelve-year-old Kit McMahon has lived all her life in the village of Lough Glass. A priest, on a recent visit to her convent school, held a discussion on suicide. It was, he explained, a sin against hope, the sinner “not fit to be buried in a Christian burial ground.” Shortly after, Kit's mother fails to return from a walk, and the family rowboat is found floating upside down on the lake. In her father's bedroom, Kit sees an envelope, addressed in her mother's hand. Someone who drowned accidentally could not have left a letter.

Kit imagines her mother damned to a sinner's grave, buried in shame outside the consecrated ground. She throws the envelope, unopened, into the fire.

In London, Helen McMahon waits by the telephone to hear from her husband. Having run off with an old lover, she accepts that her husband has the right to decide what to tell the children. She will go along with his story. The phone never rings. A newspaper reports that a drowned woman, identified as Helen McMahon, has been buried in the Lough Glass cemetery. Helen McMahon believes that her husband has taken his vengeance by declaring her dead. She becomes Lena Gray, living in London with her lover, Louis. By one action, Helen McMahon has changed a family's life. By another, her daughter has cut her off forever.

Underlying Binchy's novel is the question of whether actions have consequences that can permanently twist our lives or whether it is human nature to accommodate tragedy, to grieve and then to go on, wiser maybe, more cautious certainly, but not derailed forever by a single act.

It is a question that has long intrigued novelists, and whether a plot comes to an optimistic close or a tragic one depends on whether the author has signed on with Charlotte Bronte or with her sister, Emily. Those who line up with Charlotte take the tack she took in Jane Eyre: Lovers may lie, mad wives may lurk in the attic, but eventually things work out. Those who hold onto Emily's vision model their works on the dark drama of Wuthering Heights, wherein Cathy's folly in abandoning Heathcliff ruins their lives.

Binchy is definitely in Charlotte's camp. In Lough Glass, things work out. Kit survives the loss of her mother and the later trauma of finding her alive and living in London. Both she and her brother grow into compassionate, intelligent people. Her father, too, finds contentment. In London, Lena Gray lives a life dominated by her consuming love for Louis, and though she's not really much happier than she was in Lough Glass, she is able to comfort herself with both a career and the anonymity of the big city. In the village she was an outsider and an oddity. In London, to hold aloof is normal.

No one in Binchy's novel, not even the luckless Lena, is a figure of torment. These are people satisfied by the small desires of a settled life, like the young girl who declares her New Year's resolution: “I'm going to get good-looking. …” When you put down The Glass Lake, Kit McMahon, Lena Gray, even the wise old hermit nun, Sister Madeleine, who lives in solitary goodness by the side of the lake—all of them fade from memory in ways that Heathcliff and Cathy never have.

This is not to dismiss Binchy's book. As always, she holds our interest. We may be moved by the idea of a dark and doomed love, intense and inevitable, but it is really much more soothing to pick up a novel that follows normal people through the bad times of their lives and assures us that, no matter what happens, things work out.

Maeve Binchy with Mike Burns (interview date April 1995)

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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 U. S. by Savoy Pictures.

Maeve Binchy, 54, was born in Dalkey, near Dublin (where she still lives with her husband, writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell). She was educated at a Roman Catholic girls' school and University College, Dublin, before becoming a teacher at a Jewish girls' school in Dublin.

A letter to her father observing life in a kibbutz during a trip to Israel was published in the Irish Independent—the launch of her writing career. In 1969 she joined the Irish Times—and still writes a weekly column for the newspaper.

At her County Dublin home she talked—with the same self-deprecating approach and humor so valued by her own large “circle of friends”—to Europe's Mike Burns.

[Burns:] What is the theme of your latest book The Glass Lake?

[Binchy:] It's really about a mother-daughter relationship. Like all of my books it's set in the 1950s—I was born in 1940 and all my heroines are born in 1940 to make possible absolutely minimal research. This girl, in the early 1950s, is only a child and is awfully worried about her mother, who doesn't look like anyone else's mother. Her mother is odd and behaves peculiarly. She's more beautiful than the other people in the village, and she keeps wandering down by the lake, instead of doing the things everybody else in the village would do—looking after the flowers on the altar of the church and buying cardigans in shops. One night her mother disappears and is presumed dead. She leaves a note behind and her daughter, fearing this was a suicide note, burnt the note in case her mother might not be buried in consecrated ground. The book follows the adventures of the family after that.

Is this a traditional Maeve Binchy book?

It is traditional in the sense that it's back in the 1950s when we were a more enclosed society than now. Films and books were banned here—we weren't touched with the world in general around us, as I hope we are nowadays. It was a life that was very safe. All marriages lasted forever, even though they might have been terrible marriages, so children never had to fear their parents being divorced. They did have to fear other things—that there wouldn't be a job for them and emigration was always a big problem. There was also an incredible fear of sex, which seemed to be the only sin that was ever talked about in church. We were terrified of it. The reviewer of one of my books said “this book is all about sex, but nobody gets any.” I thought it was the best review I'd ever heard, because I really must have the period right if this was what he thought.

From the comfort of your home here in County Dublin, what is your perspective on writing?

I always loved writing because being Irish I'm part of a tradition of storytelling. People love to tell stories in Ireland. No one has any time for a person who is a ‘good listener’ or has just a few crisp words to say. People prefer long, rambling stories and adventures about people. I love to hear about people—even people I don't know. If you were to tell me about people who were your neighbor's cousins in Australia I'd be interested to know about them if there was a good story. I love to hear a good story well told. I love to know all about people and their backgrounds, and I love to start with them when they were young, the same as in real life. If you've known somebody since childhood you're always interested in what the future holds for them.

You've just seen the release of one of your films in the United States—Circle of Friends. What is the essential difference between writing for the page and writing for films or television?

In my case, I speak very quickly without much pause for punctuation, and I write very quickly without much pause for punctuation also. My books are 600 or 700 pages long, so I have quite a lot of interior monologue, and I have people thinking about what's going to happen next and analyzing what has just happened in the past. Writing for the screen is quite different. I didn't write the screenplay for my own film. I'd love to be able to, but it's a much crisper and brisker form, where the words are very short and where sentences seem to be one line each. To reduce a book of 600–700 pages to a 115-page script is really a work of art.

Do you like the film?

I love it … and this is not always the case with people who see their own works turned into movies. I didn't like the script when I read it. It was bold and cold and lacked any of the warmth I'd hoped the book had, but when I went to Hollywood and saw the film I was delighted with it. I thought it had all the warmth and spontaneity and innocence and confusion of our day in the 1950s. In fact it was a marvelous experience. It was like the years being rolled back seeing a dance they had filmed set in the 1950s. There were hardly any words to describe this; there were hardly words at all. I had no idea what the film was going to be like, but when I saw the dance it was almost like virtual reality—I was brought straight back into the 1950s, it was like a time warp. I felt that was exactly the way we were. They had gone to an awful lot of trouble to get it right, to get the feel of the period exactly correct.

Do you remember how many books you've written, how many films or television programs have been made of your books?

I've written 11 books altogether. This one—Circle of Friends—has been made into a Hollywood movie. Another one—Echoes—was made into a four-part mini-series for television in Britain and The Lilac Bus was made into a one-and-a-half hour television movie. I had no idea there was going to be so much interest and excitement in the actual filming for Hollywood because I'm very interested in books myself and I'm really more interested in writing the next book than anything else. I suppose that I won't ever really fall under the spell of it, but it was very exciting to go to a premiere and see all the hype and the enthusiasm. Of course, there are so many people's dreams wrapped up in it—not mine so much, because I think my future will always be in writing books. But so many people—the actors, the directors, the producers—have their dreams tied up in that one movie. I wish it much success because it has a great heart and it's a very attractive production. I also feel that the director, Pat O'Connor, and myself should be put on a permanent retainer from the Irish Tourist Board for the rest of our lives because it makes Ireland look so beautiful. Ireland is beautiful, but the film was shot in an exceptionally beautiful part of Ireland, in a small town called Inistioge, in County Kilkenny, which they found for the movie and which is perfect.

A mutual friend of ours said that you couldn't go to an airport in the world without finding a Maeve Binchy book on the bookstands. What is your appeal, particularly to the American book-buying public?

It would be stupid of me to say at this stage that I don't know because obviously there is a huge amount of interest there. I think the most interesting thing that was said to me by Barbara Bush. Mrs. Bush was on the Oprah Winfrey Show and was asked who her favorite author was and she said I was. So I wrote and thanked her, and she said “come and see me.” So, of course, I went to see her immediately … like would tomorrow be too soon! So I went there and over lunch—there were just seven of us—she said “It's funny, but I feel you and I have shared the same childhood. Which is ludicrous because I grew up as a Presbyterian in New England and you grew up as a Roman Catholic in Ireland. But you've managed to write about all the vulnerabilities and the innocence of what we had when we were young.”

So I think that if there's anything in my books which people like—and I think there must be because if they are translated into languages like Hebrew and Korean—there must be something universal in them. We've all been there. We've all loved people having loved us. We've all had alcoholic friends; we've all had disappointments and dreams that didn't come true; we've had people who betrayed us along the way. And these are the kinds of universal truths the world has.

Do you think it's because you are an Irish writer that you are so popular in the United States?

Well, I'm more a different kind of Irish writer in a sense. … I have more of an airport readership, which is what you said a few moments ago. I'm in the very popular end of the market, which is something I'm very proud of. I'm not an academic writer. I'm no Booker Prize winner writer. I'm really at the popular end, which is no bad place to be. But I'm not like a writer people would read and be able to quote and would study in universities. So, I don't think I just have the Irish market. I think I have mainly the women's market. I wouldn't be driving a Mercedes car if I was relying on the men to buy my books. It's mainly women who read them, but also it's not romantic fiction in the sense that “He pressed her to his manly bosom” … there has never been anyone pressed to a manly bosom in any of my books, I'm proud to say.

How many million books have you sold?

I don't know, and the reason I don't know is not because I'm hedging it, but it's because I had a friend once who went into television and he never stopped talking about ‘the ratings.’ Every time you met him he was talking about the bloody ratings. So I decided that I wouldn't actually start counting how many books I'd sold or what place I was on the best-sellers' list. It was a terrible, awful, awful warning to see someone who had once been so normal now so obsessed by ‘the ratings.’ All I know is that my books must have sold in several millions, because all the last books have sold at least a million each in the United States.

Are the books in many languages?

Twelve languages now.

You mentioned that you think your books appeal more to women than men. You've been described to me as an up-market Mills & Boon writer. Do you find that offensive?

No, I don't find it offensive. I find it wrong because in Mills & Boon people write to a formula. It's always girl gets man, girl loses man, and girl gets man back again. That is not the story of my books. Some of my books end either with a death or with someone taking a totally different route in life. If I have any philosophy it is that we have to be in charge of our own lives. When I was young we were told ‘if you're good you'll be happy’ and that is patently not true. I know many really good people who are not a bit happy. I don't think you have to be bad to be happy either, but I do think that people who manage to take control of their own lives and manage to act in their own lives are the ones who are ultimately happy. I have seen people around us who for years are stuck in the same old jobs and who have stayed in the same dreadful relationship and are terribly unhappy. Because they haven't had the courage to make a decision and realize that we are only here for a short number of years, and we must do the best for everyone around us and ourselves.

Who are your favorite writers?

Irish writers I love are William Trevor and Brian Moore. Those are my favorite writers—both men, as it happens. Among American writers I like Anne Tyler, among Canadians I like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. I'm afraid I'm shamefully ignorant about European writers, although I'm a compulsive reader. I read a detective story a day—John Le Carré, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard. Because I'm mixing a lot with writers and publishers I often get books which people send me and say “you might like this one.” So I also read a lot of books in proof-stage now, which is nice—reading them before they come out.

Do you ever want to be a William Shakespeare?

No. Not at all. My favorite was always Charles Dickens, and I'd much prefer Dickens, the storyteller. He had a cast of thousands in his books; he wrote very quickly; he wrote about the people of his time; and he wrote about the problems of his time. He wrote about people loving each other, which often led to disaster, and about their social conditions. People call it Dickensian England. I'm not arrogant enough to think about the things they might one day say about the Binchyian Ireland. But there is a kind of a place where the rosary was said and the Angelus rang and people were afraid to lose their virginity because they thought that not only would they go to hell but that they'd get pregnant and everyone would talk about them and no decent man would have them. That changed in my lifetime, that changed from when I was 20 to when I'm 54. It was amazing. I saw that whole change happening. The place has become a healthier society and less obsessive which is very pleasing. I'm not sorry that I lived through these times. I've made great capital out of them, and I've had a very happy life. But I think for the country in general it was much, much better that we emerged at the end of the 1960s as a much more liberal place.

You started out as a teacher then transferred to journalism. You still write a weekly column for the Irish Times. Was this a fear at the start that your books wouldn't take off and that it was better to retain the day job or is it just because you like writing to a deadline?

Well, it certainly never crossed my mind that the books would take off, and I never intended to leave the day job. It never crossed my mind that I'd be doing promotional tours around the world instead of being sent to cover an inquest or a flower show or whatever other assignment I was sent on. Of course, once I realized that one was biting into the other I had to leave. But I still kept the column because people who read the Irish Times are the people that I talk to and meet and like in Ireland, and their opinions are the ones I value. So it's like a chat with friends. It's also a huge discipline. My husband Gordon Snell and I travel a lot. We were away for four months a couple of years ago, then two months last year. So it's a great discipline to write a piece every week. You have to center yourself and ground yourself and write a piece on a Wednesday of a thousand words. It also serves for me as a marvelous scrap-book of where I've been and the things I've done.

You have suffered for almost 20 years from arthritis, which must affect your mobility. But I gather it has also led to publication of a book of your newspaper columns with all the profits going to help fellow-sufferers through the Arthritis Foundation?

The book is not about arthritis. I did a lovely series—it was lovely for me but I'm not sure it was lovely for anyone else—where I was asked for advice by world figures about what they should do and also the general public. Questions like whether you should keep any silver in your home or should you give it away rather than being worried all the time that your house was going to be burgled—or whether if you were very drunk at a party should you ring up and apologize or should you hope everyone else was drunk too. Social advice in a very off-beat way. One of the articles I wrote was about arthritis, how you should deal with people like myself who have arthritis. You must not say ‘they have a touch of arthritis.’ Let us be the judge of whether we have a touch or a blast of arthritis, thank you. People don't like to be talked about as if they didn't exist. People have often said to Gordon “do you think Maeve can manage the stairs?” I can't believe but they've said it standing in front of me, two feet away from me. So I decided I'd write a kind of polemical piece, which was very successful. There were hundreds of letters saying “Right on, we've always thought this and what can be done about it” because arthritis doesn't kill you. So I decided to do something about it, gathered all my pieces together as a little book. It's being published this month, and the entire profits will go to the Arthritis Foundation so I hope it's a success.

I know writers never like to speak about their next work, but I'll risk it. What's your next book?

I think I'm going to write a sequel to Circle of Friends because [the characters] are all only 19 when the book ends. I don't usually like sequels, but at least I'll be writing it myself, and I have an idea that I could set in the same village. This time it involves an American, not just a mysterious stranger but someone who has to come to that village, and I think the characters that are already there will provide a good backdrop for him. But I don't have to make up my mind until next September, which is quite a long way away.

Mary Kay Zuravleff (review date 2 March 1997)

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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 that subjects choose their writers rather than the other way round, then these subjects were lucky in their choice. Poor or rich, quick- or slow-witted, ambitious or phlegmatic: Each member of the ensemble cast clearly has the author's affection, and rightly so. The many threads Binchy strings from one character to another trapped me without a struggle, and yet when I reached the last page, these same ties were easily shrugged off. Which got me to wondering: What is the difference between a storyteller and a good-natured gossip?

The evening class of the title is conversational Italian, the success of which will determine the future for continuing education at Mountainview, a Dublin high school whose reputation is as dicey as the neighborhood's. At 48, devoted Latin instructor Aidan Dunne has just begun noticing how little attention his students, grown children, or wife pay him. That will change, he assures himself, when he is named Mountainview's next principal. But this does not happen, and as consolation prize Aidan is allowed to start up that continuing education program.

Apparently, plodding loyalty is not the currency it once was. Tony O'Brien, the principal-elect, is a smoker, drinker, and an admitted womanizer; worse, an admitted young womanizer. He makes no effort to learn the students' names or participate in any extracurricular activities, all of which makes Aidan justifiably peeved.

It's courage Aidan needs, and he's not the only one. Italian instructor Signora, actually Nora O'Donoghue, has just returned to Dublin 25 years after following a man to Sicily. Now she is trying not to become a prisoner of her elderly, disapproving parents. Students Fiona, Bill and Connie, too, are all in danger of becoming invertebrates in the course of these 400-plus pages, but each manages to hang onto his or her spine. In fact, they do more than that, though we believe it less and less. The credibility gap emerges not because wonderful things alone happen to these folks, for Binchy visits illegitimate births, financial indiscretions, adultery and underworld goings-on upon them. What is hard to accept is that they all behave in the most wonderful of ways.

Inventing a dozen characters whose paths cross in the Italian class, Binchy employs a suspense atypical of so much fiction, where the reader's delight is in being surprised. Binchy lets you know early on who will trip over whom, and she makes you ache for that accident. Which brings such relief when what was expected finally happens. It's a lovely technique, because it encourages the reader to cheer beside the path as each character streaks by on his or her way to the pileup.

Some characters, though, seem to be running in the well-meaning author's shoes rather than their own. Binchy attributes implausible emotions especially to women, as if she were afraid that they might develop a mean streak or perhaps a conscience. She writes of Signora, who left Dublin in 1969 to live near a man betrothed at birth to the neighboring olive grower's daughter: “And she watched from this window as his children were carried to the church to be christened. Families needed sons in this part of the world. It didn't hurt her.” And of Connie, whose marriage is doomed when she and her husband are not sexually compatible: “Harry only went out for sex. He loved it. She had not been able to give it to him, it was unfair of her to deny it to him elsewhere. And she was not at all jealous of his sexual intimacy with Siobhan Casey and whoever else there might be … It didn't bother Connie at all.”

Ultimately, what does the author make of all these yarns? She effortlessly knots one character's mother to another's father, a successful businessman to the child he fathered as a teenager. This reader was hoping she might fashion a net, one that would be cast as deep as it was wide. Unfortunately, the result is more like a doily. Maybe I just need to spend more time with the gang. The publicity accompanying the novel mentions a contest for a one-week trip to Italy. Put my name in the hopper, please, but only if the rest of the class promises to come along.

Mona Knapp (review date Winter 1998)

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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 example, to Frank McCourt's harrowing 1996 book, Angela's Ashes).

The “evening class” is an introduction to Italian language and culture, created by boarding-school principal Aidan Dunn. It is the swan song of his career, and taught by the woman with whom he is destined to fall in love in the Evening Class. The eccentric “Signora” is a Dubliner who spent twenty years in Sicily pursuing an ill-fated love affair and has recently returned to Ireland homeless and alienated, her love of Italy apparently her only marketable skill. The Signora's class fills with a diverse array of students, each of whose passionate stories are spotlighted in single chapters. There is Grania, Aidan's daughter, in love with her father's co-worker and rival; Lou, a con man who uses the Italian classroom to store stolen goods. Lorenzo is a “slow learner” from a struggling working-class family about to lose their business; Connie is a wealthy and influential socialite who sets out to save him. As the term wears on, their situations become intriguing, even suspenseful, and some unifying narrative tension is created by the conflict between the Signora's growing love for the Dubliners and her passionate homesickness for Italy.

Though the novel initially promises to interweave the threads of its characters' lives into a dense fabric, it soon becomes evident that the episodic structure is not adequate to the task. The chapters read as a series of short stories, rushing toward happy endings made possible by contrived circumstances in which everyone turns out to know everyone else. Foreclosures, bad love affairs, and miscellaneous minor tragedies are all averted by the instrumental players, who are too conveniently sitting next to each other in the same night class.

Masterful storytelling, narrative warmth, wit, and delightful characters are the staples of Binchy's work—not philosophical truth (like countrywoman Iris Murdoch), not existential depth à la Joyce. Binchy pursues the charm of a well-told tale, and Evening Class tells the tale so charmingly that the sacrifice of plausibility seems forgivable.

Kim Campbell (review date 16 April 1998)

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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, after all, crafter of well-peopled novels like Circle of Friends and last year's Evening Class). Mothers, daughters, friends, lovers. They're all here.

The best story of the bunch, “Package Tour,” is also one of the shortest. In 10 pages, newly acquainted Irish “soul mates” Shane and Moya make elaborate plans for a vacation and then watch them unravel as they discover the one thing they don't have in common: He packs heavy, she packs light.

Binchy explores issues and temptations everyday people face, offering ironic, sometimes predictable, outcomes. In “The Home Sitter,” an attractive housesitter changes the life of an unhappy wife—not by stealing her husband, as she expects, but by charming her family and neighbors in a way she can never duplicate. Among the sweeter entries is “Miss Vogel's Vacation,” where a New York woman's first vacation comes late in life and takes her no farther than the Big Apple's city limits.

Binchy's stories are light, pleasant reads for the most part. They do, though, have a sense of sameness, as many deal with romance. But the author makes sure she offers a variety of situations for her characters—business trips, society weddings, cruises, affairs that are not meant to be. And in the end, her brief tales include worthwhile messages: Marry for love; narrow-mindedness is unattractive; and it's never too late to have an adventure.

Kim Campbell (review date 11 March 1999)

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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 teaser. Like an easy-paced conversation, Binchy takes her time getting readers to the “extraordinary consequences” of the house swap promised on the dust jacket.

The novel's early focus is the marriage of Ria and Danny Lynch. They appear to lead a “charmed” life—with a big house on Tara Road in Dublin, two children, and lots of friends. Attractive Ria spends her days making the house inviting and those around her welcome, while handsome hardworking Danny puts together real estate deals.

Unfortunately, readers know what Ria doesn't learn until page 171: that her husband is a philanderer. He ultimately falls in love with one of his young, now pregnant, dalliances and tells Ria he is leaving.

An unexpected phone call from Marilyn Vine in Connecticut pushes the story in its promised direction (almost halfway through the book). She knows Danny through his business and tells the woman who answers his home phone her idea before she knows it's Ria.

“Am I talking to Mrs. Lynch?”

“I don't know.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We are going to get separated, divorced. There's divorce now in Ireland, did you know that?”

“This really was not a good time to ring. I can't tell you how sorry I am.”

“No, it was a great time. We'll do it.”

“Do what?”

“I'll go to your house, you come to mine, July and August. It's a deal.”

Relationships are Binchy's specialty, and she offers plenty of them in Tara Road. The author neatly sorts out the lives of Ria and Marilyn—whose teenage son was killed in a motorcycle accident—and avoids a storybook ending for the Lynches. Along the way, she also deals with domestic violence and drug abuse (and throws in a smidgen of fortune-telling, as well).

While the novel will likely please most fans, some may miss the depth of Binchy's earlier works, such as The Glass Lake. But if it's an uncomplicated tale from an Irish storyteller they're after, they've come to the right place.

Michele Slung (review date 21 March 1999)

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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. Whether her characters' troubles play themselves out against a backdrop of town or country, the individual dramas she presents can be seen as solos, with the narratives entire possessing a distinctly choral quality.

At this point in Binchy's career—Firefly Summer, Circle of Friends, The Glass Lake, The Return Journey are among her bestselling titles—she has earned a devoted readership that comes to her work anticipating each time a similar crowd of new acquaintances.

In this aspect Tara Road, its plot as well populated as those of any of her previous stories, certainly delivers. Moreover, the assured, confiding voice perfected by Binchy for helping us achieve instantaneous entry into the heart of each of her communities is as smooth as ever. And if the intimacy she offers is the kind that's really an elaborate illusion—we see only and exactly what the author wishes us to see, and connect the dots accordingly—we also understand that finding ourselves so skillfully manipulated is, of course, just what's hoped for.

Dublin native Ria Lynch, 16 at our first encounter with her, is the figure Binchy allows us to know best. At once romantic and practical, she is, like the writer's usual favorites, possessed of an immensely true heart that both powers and amplifies her charm. And, throughout the book's first half, Ria herself seems charmed, elevated by the magic of love to a conjugal experience bearing little resemblance to her mother's thwarted existence or her sister's dull suburban security.

Boyishly handsome Danny Lynch, with taste beyond his means and ambition to match, is Ria's fate. As is, equally, the enormous tumbledown “gentleman's residence” on Tara Road that they buy and painstakingly restore together, creating around them an oasis of velvet-curtained, oak-tabled bliss. Its warm, busy kitchen, anchored by Ria at the stove, soon becomes a gathering place where not just Danny or their two children but every neighbor, at practically any moment of day or night, feels at home.

So absorbing is it in its daily minutiae, the idea that this particular brand of suitable-for-all-ages hypercozy happiness may not be enough for her husband never occurs to Ria. Not until it's too late—at which point, since she's only in her mid-thirties and the book's quite a bit less than halfway over, Ria has plenty of Binchy-given time to get over shock, collect her dignity and decide what's next.

Tara Road, as it turns out, is actually a two-way street leading to (and from) America. It's also more like an extended transatlantic therapy session as both Ria and Marilyn Vine (the equally troubled Connecticut wife with whom she agrees to a summertime house swap) learn old truths in new settings. Each becomes immersed in the community of the other. And when they finally meet, each is the possessor of especially privileged knowledge about the other, giving rise to a sort of a mutual fairy-god-mother effect radiating outward, transforming the lives of this or that friend or neighbor.

Why then, I wonder, do the characters and events of Tara Road seem to me so much less compelling than the situations of other Binchy efforts? Is it because she ventures beyond the Auld Sod to attempt a bit of her empathetic magic on these shores?

The geographic anomaly alone probably isn't sufficient answer since the truth is I'd already found myself rather weary of Ria and her circle for some time before she shifted her locale. One even felt that here was a heroine being put through her paces—courtship, marriage, family, betrayal—in a sheerly programmatic fashion, the novelistic equivalent of a crash-test dummy.

Binchy is too talented, however, to write a book that's completely un-entertaining. Her typically loving scrutiny of ordinary lives may in this case seem uninspired, but that could be a result of trying to hold a mirror up to a contemporary urban Irish family that unfortunately in its particulars, Internet access and all, somehow seems to lack the unique aura that one craves. How to maintain that specialness in the face of a rapidly homogenizing civilization is the tricky task she now faces.

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

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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 late!” I work from 8 until 2 five days a week.

How do you get started?

I regard my work as storytelling. People want to know what happens next, so I spend a lot of time plotting: by the end of Chapter 1, this has to happen, and then this must happen by the end of Chapter 2.

I think about a feeling first, or an emotion—friendship or betrayal or hypocrisy. Tara Road is about the shock of a betrayal and the strength that comes from friendship. And I always have to advance these things. I try to imagine what would happen if it happened to me, or my friends. I try to believe in characters as people, and I imagine what I would do if this happened to me, how would I react. This is a great writer's tool: “What would I feel like if this would happen to me?” It helps you flesh out the book a bit.

You have to live in your mind or imagination in your writing, more than you do in your real life. I'm a matronly, mumsy woman, and if it was all about me and my cats, it would be boring for the readers, and that's not the way novels are made—there's no tension or drama.

Tell us about Tara Road.

I hope people like it because there are two very strong women who do a home exchange, one in Connecticut and one in Ireland, and it's really about coping and surviving. There's something very strange and intimate about living with someone else's possessions. When I did a home exchange I felt very protective about her, the woman who owned the house. … It's an intimate relationship. I knew all about this woman and I had never met her.

What's the most difficult aspect of writing for you?

I have a frightful temptation to use a cast of thousands and to deal with the details of all the neighbors and friends, a huge wide tapestry. I have to remind myself, keep it focused. If you spend too much time on the small characters, we have a hard time remembering who the biggest characters are.

Do you revise?

Hardly at all. I've been two things that helped me with writing: a journalist and a teacher. A journalist is used to being edited and that's good training to be a novelist. I say, if you think it's too wordy, then cut it. I believe in my editor and agent. I think writers should be prepared to listen to the professionals.

Any advice for future novelists?

You have to keep at it and refuse to be upset by rejection. We all have rejection. I was rejected five times before I started, and there must be five publishers now who are sick and regretting that!

And the other thing is to write as you speak. … I write as I speak and it's very quick and breathless. And it worked. I thought it would only work in Ireland, but it works everywhere. You know when people put on an accent, it's annoying. When someone speaks like themselves, it's much nicer and you want to be friends with them. That's what makes it good.

What's coming up next?

I write a big book every two years, I've been doing that for the last 18 years. I've started to think about the book after this. But if you talk about it you think you've written it and you haven't and then the publisher's coming looking.

Jose Lanters (review date Winter 2000)

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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 American, has become emotionally estranged from her husband since they lost their teenage son to a motorcycle accident; Ria, the Dubliner, had believed herself happily married until her husband left her for his much younger, pregnant girlfriend. On something of a whim, the women decide to swap homes for the summer, and in the course of two months each gains renewed confidence as well as new friends. They also learn secrets about each other's lives which they know they can never reveal.

A certain shallowness pervades the characters in Tara Road: motivation for their actions is often lacking, and the long, pedestrian dialogues soon become tedious. In that respect, the book's 500 pages could have been pruned a little. The female characters in particular are obsessed with marriage, age, and appearance: women in their twenties are afraid of being left “on the shelf,” and once married they stand by their men, regardless of infidelities or abusive behavior. Most are insecure and not a little annoying in their naivete or denial of reality. Even the children (Ria's fourteen-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son) constantly refer to those over thirty as “old.” If these and other cliches (the daughter is rebellious but really very sensible, the gormless son constantly puts his foot in it) are meant to be amusing, they too get old very quickly.

The darker side of life in Dublin—corrupt business practices, drug dealing, soaring real-estate prices—is alluded to but not allowed to dominate. In Maeve Binchy's world, things are never allowed to get as bad as they could be (and, in life as we know it, probably would be). Financial destitution is averted in the nick of time (by the almost saintly act of a woman, of course). Drug pushers (the classy sort who operate in fancy restaurants) are simply arrested by the police before they can get ugly, while heroin addicts are really no trouble at all and ready for rehabilitation at just the right time. Violent husbands are conveniently killed off before they can do any lasting damage. It is all a shade too easy and never quite rings true. Maeve Binchy's writing is not bad, but neither does it challenge the emotions or the intellect. Take Tara Road to the beach.

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

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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, tell us a bit about Tara Road.

[Binchy:] It is the story of two women—one Irish and one American—and the problems they face in one particular year of their lives. The Irish woman is Ria Lynch. She's married to a drop-dead handsome man named Danny, a real estate agent. They have two children and live on Tara Road, a street on which the houses are becoming worth more every week in the newly affluent Ireland. Ria is perfectly happy, and thinks it's time to have another baby, that's the only thing she'd like. When she starts to tell her husband about this, she gets the most terrible shock in the world: He tells her that he is having a child with another woman and he's about to leave her. So that's the first big bang on the solar plexus. I tried to imagine what I would do if such an awful thing happened to me. I think I'd probably want to get away from the pity and the sympathy of everybody in familiar surroundings. So I decided that Ria would swap houses with an American woman named Marilyn who has a totally different problem: She is bereaved, can't get over it, needs some space, and decides to leave America.

It's a wonderful premise, and the book is a very good read. Now, I want to talk a little about you, Maeve. Your books have sold more copies than those of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan or William Butler Yeats. That's an incredible statistic. Did you have a breakout book, or did you sell well right from the beginning?

I started with two books of short stories. Though people seemed to like them, they weren't very successful; apparently people don't like short stories unless they are by very well-known writers. I find that odd because I buy short stories by people who are not well-known, thinking that if I don't like the first story, I might like the second one. But this is not the way it happened. When my first novel was published in 1982–83, things suddenly became very different. It was translated into twenty languages. It wasn't what I expected. I take all this publicity about “more than James Joyce” or “more than Yeats” very lightly in the sense that it is true, of course, it is true in terms of sales. I mean, they were not writing for airports. The thing is, if you were going on a journey and you were thinking, I must read something on the plane, and if you had read any of my books before you would think, well, she tells a good story. It's very unlikely that you would take Finnegans Wake to get you across the Atlantic. Therefore, these books are read by an entirely different clientele. So it really isn't comparing like with like. It's a function of today's kind of marketing of books.

People everywhere love your books.

For some reason I have hit upon a form of story telling that appeals to people in different languages. But I always say to myself, why would these people really be interested in the stories I tell? But then having asked myself the question, I answer it by saying that I suppose they have also felt love and hope and pain, and they have had dreams and had the delight of close families and the more irritating aspects of close families. They have, perhaps, also loved people who haven't loved them in return and also might have wanted to go up to the bright lights of a big city—it might be Tokyo or Seoul or Athens or Dublin—but the principle is the same. You have people who are young and enthusiastic and want to try to achieve their dream, and I think that is why people everywhere like them.

Ireland has a great literary history. The Irish have always been able to tell a good tale, but Americans are becoming more and more aware of good Irish writing.

There is indeed a resurgence in Irish writers. When I was a young woman going into bookshops in Ireland there were only two Irish woman writers—Mary Lavin and Kate O'Brien. In the sixties, Edna O'Brien came and that meant three. Now, when you go into an Irish bookshop the walls are full of them.

Do you think some of this had to do with the fact that recently there have been a number of Irish Booker Prize winners?

I think it has a lot to do with the Irish having become a lot more confident in themselves. We don't apologize for being Irish. We don't have to write about deprivation and loss anymore. Ireland is a country that has come out into the sunshine. I never feel that the past is always looking over my shoulder because I think that everybody is writing differently. New people are writing, young people are writing. They've found a voice for themselves; their own voice.

How did you get into writing?

By accident, as an awful lot of people do. My accident was ludicrous. When I was young I was going to be a saint. There was going to be a Saint Maeve's day, like Saint Patrick's Day, and people were going to walk in a procession after a statue of me tottering along through the streets. Then I wanted to be a judge because my father was a lawyer and we always knew that the judges were the most important people. And then I became a teacher, and I was very happy. I loved teaching.

What did you teach?

I taught history and Latin in a girls' Catholic school. And I taught French in a Jewish school in Dublin.

An interesting mix.

A great mix. The Jewish parents were so pleased with me and the way I taught their children—for instance, I taught them little songs that had to do with Israel for Chanukah—that they gave me a ticket to go to Israel. I wrote my parents all about the lovely time I was having: I told them about how the communal farms in Israel worked and how the children didn't sleep with their parents and they had to learn how to be grown-up and independent from their parents. I remember talking about the extraordinary dining. I was in the desert and it was near the time of the war, so there were air raids and I wrote all about it. My father in particular was so impressed by my letters, he had them typed up and sent them to the newspaper, and they were impressed as well, and published them. I didn't think I was writing for anybody except my parents. So when I came home my work was there in print, and it was then I realized I was a writer. What I discovered in writing those letters was that if you write as you speak and you write what you know about in your own voice rather than trying to imitate anybody else, then you're much more authentic and people are going to like it.

Cristina Odone (essay date 8 May 2000)

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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 that they trade on making women feel dated. Their premise is that, if we want to get on in the new society, we must take up new attitudes towards sex. Forget the old feminist stuff about sex being a plot perpetrated on unsuspecting women by the oppressive patriarchy. No, for the Wurtzels of this world, sex is something that women should engage in—and yes, even enjoy—but only so long as they meet certain standards. And the standards are impossibly high.

Elizabeth and Co look down their noses at us if we don't engage in Kama Sutra contortions on the first date, or if we allow one ounce of emotion to colour our physical performance. These new self-appointed lifestyle gurus have very specific notions of what sex entails. It's sweaty, grunting, athletic stuff that must hit the pleasure spots without dragging in moods, feelings or even a thought about tomorrow. Erotic ecstasy is expected; emotions are kept at bay. What you see is what you get—and all you're allowed to want. It's mattress materialism. And coital consumerism: for these women writers approach sexuality like a shopper with a checklist: size, timing, foreplay, positions—and oh, how many times did you come? Everything has to be just so, for the consumer's instant gratification.

If this sounds familiar, it is: the Wurtzel view is the caricature of a man's attitude to sex. How ironic. It's taken all these years for trendy young women writers to push the same high libido, no-real-affection scenario that has been a male fantasy since our days in the caves. We didn't buy it when men were pushing it on us; why should we want it now from women?

The new young writers may lack a sense of sisterhood, but they do have self-confidence in spades. Armed with their strident attitude, they strut their stuff, convinced that they know what's best for us—even between the sheets. They sweep into town, ready to rate our performance and give us tips on how to improve it. And while they attack our code of sexual conduct from newspaper pages and on TV chat shows, they leave the rest of us ordinary women cowering in their shadows, feeling like the undeserving poor in a society rich in sexual and emotional satisfaction. Works such as The Bitch Rules are calculated to make us feel like an emotionally wet underclass starved of fun, mediocrities who would be perfect candidates for the attentions of a Sexual Exclusion Unit.

Which is why we mourn Maeve Binchy. She never marginalises us. When a man and a woman engage in an erotic coupling in her novels, Binchy doesn't deliver a blow-by-blow account of orgasmic frenzy and sexual antics that would make 99 percent of us feel wanting. She withdraws, and lets them get on with it. We do not have to measure up to impossible feats of acrobatics or aspire to unattainable levels of emotional toughness. We fill in the blanks till we have fulfilled our own fantasies.

Binchy's approach is not born out of bourgeois primness or Irish Catholic scruples; her tales do feature sex before marriage, adultery and promiscuity. But her writing aims to include us in her world, rather than tell us what to do from her superior perch. Close your eyes, she tells us, and you too can live out your wildest dreams.

This approach may be old-fashioned—it is based on suggestion, longing and anticipation—and it may not improve our sexual performance in any measurable way. But it does have the merit of treating women's sexuality as their own, rather than some caveman's fantasy.

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