Novelist, short story writer, and journalist, Maeve Binchy was born in Dublin on March 28,1940, grew up in Dalkey, and attended the Holy Child Convent in Killiney, which was then considered a progressive school. She later took a history degree at University College, Dublin and taught in various girls' schools, while writing her first travel articles in the summer holidays. There is a story that one of these, originally a letter home, led to her employment by the Irish Times in 1969. She soon became a popular columnist, writing twice-weekly articles distinguished by a quirky, self-deprecating humour. She was woman's editor during the first days of Irish feminism. She later moved to London, where she met and married Gordon Snell, a BBC presenter and later writer of children's books.
Binchy's My First Book is a collection of her newspaper articles and is long out of print. The Dublin section of the book contains insightful case histories that prefigure her novelist's interest in character. The rest of the book is mainly humorous, and particularly droll is her account of a skiing holiday, 'I Was a Winter Sport.' Her next three books are collections of short stories. Two of them, Central Line (1977) and Victoria Line (1980) - now available in a combined edition, depict life in London, while Dublin 4 (1982) is set in middle-class Dublin. These Irish stories could have been cut, but they are nonetheless enjoyable and perceptive. The best is about an alcoholic who works in radio Telefis Eireann (RTE).
Light a Penny Candle (1982) her first novel, has all the features that dinstinguish her fiction: a strong sense of place, a good story, and sympathetic characters. Here we meet types that populate her later books: the capable wife, the good but blundering father, the kind doctor, the spoiled son, the village gossip, the nun, the priest, the feckless charmer. Also some favorite and recurrent themes are introduced: the parent-child relationship, the illusion of romance, the talented and capable character who, although underused, makes life purposeful. The novel juxtaposes two worlds, small town Ireland and war-torn England, and tell the story of Aislinn and Elizabeth over a period of twenty years, during and after the Second World War. The two worlds meet and contemplate each other in the girls. In Ireland, status is endowed by money or a profession, but England is completely different. Although war-weary, it is a land of greater opportunity and less hypocrisy. In Aislinn, however, Binchy wonderfully captures Ireland of the frozen 1950s. It is an isolated world with an innocent charm, but it has its barbarities. Aislinn is married to a drunk, and her mother, a most moving and representative character, insists on her remaining married. Binchy has a great grasp of the rituals and minutia of small-town life; she describes, for instance, the clothes worn at a country wedding with a painter's skill.
The Lilac bus (1984) is an enjoyable collection of linked stories. In it binchy enteres the modern, changing Ireland of post-Vatican Two and gay lib. It is a world that has changed, but not that much. The ice is cracking, but there is still the need to keep up appearances. All of the characters are passengers on a bus that brings them from Dublin to the west for a weekend. Among them is the girl having an affair with an older man, the son involved with criminals, the gay son of Anglo-Irish parents. All are in flight from the lingering national oppressions; and, although they come to terms with their different problems, Binchy offers no tidy solution.
In the novel Echoes (1985), Binchy again depicts, with a fine eye for sea and landscape, a small Irish town. It comes to life in the summer with gaiety and buckets and spades but is correspondingly bleak in winter. The novel focuses on Clare O'Brien, a shopkeeper's daughter who escapes to the big world of University College, Dublin. Other characters in the rigid social pecking order are not so lucky. Clare's childhood crush, Gerry Doyle, a photographer, remains to fester. As a character, his is more memorable than the doctor's handsome son, whom Clare marries. In Gerry, we recognize the youthful Romeo with whom everyone is in love but who never grows or amounts to anything in life. Other characters do, and changing Ireland is depicted in a priest who marries. Even Clare and her doctor's son learn some harsh lessons in their growth to maturity.
Firefly Summer (1987) is probably Binchy's least satisfying novel, for one of the main characters, a returned American in search of his roots, is a bit of a stereotype. However, the plot has sudden and unexpected twists that rivet the reader. Also, we see again Binchy's grasp of marriage and her uncanny knowledge of children, in the twins Dara and Michael, whose heartbreaks are beautifully caught. The parent-child relationship is also expertly depicted, particularly in Patrick and his selfish son Kerry.
Silver Wedding (1988) returns to the world of the London Irish and tells the story of a family through the eyes of its members and friends. The plot focuses on a party that a rather conventional couple is giving for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They have had the usual ups and downs but cling to respectability. This need to keep up appearances involves one of their daughters is a sad episode that is at the heart of the novel. Helen is a dippy, superbly caught character who attempts to save her father's job by offering herself to his boss. She later enters a convent but is so forgetful that she is told to leave. In her, we see Binchy's comic ability, which unfortunately appears more in her journalism and early pieces than in her big novels.
Circle of Friends (1990) is probably Binchy's best novel. Its strength lies in the character of Benny, a large child who has to break away from comfortable but smothering small-town parents. Again the plot revolves around the friendship between two girls, Benny and Eve, the cast-off daughter of the Protestant Big house. Eve's dead mother was a Protestant, so Eve is brought up by nuns, who are kind and understanding and who present probably a truer and saner picture of religious life than the grotesqueries so frequent in recent Irish fiction. Two worlds are again juxtaposed: professional upper-middle class Dublin and a small country town. Benny herself loves and loses but learns that she can be a person in her own right. For anyone who was at University College, Dublin, in the 1950s or 1960s, the book will evoke heart-scalding memories of the Great Hall, the seedy Ladies Reading Room, the smell of dinner in the annex.
The Copper Beach (1992) is another collection of linked short stories that can be read as a novel. Although the book could have been fuller and shows some sign of having been written too quickly, it contains some fine stories. 'Dr Jims,' about a strained father-son relationship, is Chehovian in its pain and insight.
Her novel the Glass Lake (1994) has been described by one critic as a 'cosy read … like pulling up a chair in your favorite tea chop.' This could not be further from the truth. Although we have the familiar Binchy world, the story is tragic. Here, fate is determined by character. A woman feels trapped in an unhappy marriage and runs away to England with an ex-boyfriend. There she changes her name and lives a lie, pretending she is dead. In one heartbreaking scene she meets her daughter and in the end loses everything, even her lover. She has remade herself, but at enormous cost. The book has serious things to say about marriage and woman's role in society, and there are skillful twists to the plot that keep the reader enthralled.
This Year It Will Be Different and other Stories (1996) is a collection of fifteen Christmas stories filled with Binchy's trademark wit, charm and sheer storytelling genius. In 'A Typical Irish Christmas,' a grieving widower heads for a holiday in Ireland and finds an unexpected destination not just for himself, but for a father and daughter in crisis. In 'Pulling Together,' a teacher not yet our of her twenties sees her affair with a married man at a turning point as Christmas Eve approaches. And in the title story, a woman with a complacent husband and grown children enters a season that will forever alter her life, and theirs. These stories powerfully evoke many lives - from step-families grappling with exes to children caught in grown-up tugs-or-war - during the one holiday when feelings cannot be easily hidden. The time of year may be magical, imbued with meaning. But the situations are timeless, and Binchy makes the reader can about them all in her usual manner.
Evening Class (1997) is set at the Mountainview School in Dublin, which like hundreds of other schools in the city, is starting up their evening class programs to help make ends meet. The new Italian evening class here, however, has its own special quality as the hopes and dreams of some many people are tied up in the twice weekly lessons. They come to the evening class but they all learn far more than then bargained for by the time they are ready to set off on the promised trip to Italy at the end of the class, everyone's destiny has changed utterly. Here Binchy's gift as a novelist is to see that in every life, no matter how humdrum, lie drama, tragedy and often intolerable burden of secrets long hidden. This book brings these transformations to the light of day.
Tara Road (1998) is set in contemporary Dublin and the northeast coast of the United States. It is the interlocking stories of Ria Lynch and Marilyn Vine, two women who have never met. Their lives have almost nothing in common. Ria lives in a big ramshackle house in Tara Road, Dublin, which is filled day and night with the family and friends on whom she depends. Marilyn lives in a college town in Connecticut, New England, absorbed in her career, an independent and private woman who is very much her own person. Two more unlikely friends would be hard to find. Yet a chance phone call brings them together and they decide to exchange homes for the summer. Ria goes to America in the hope that the change will give her space and courage to sort out the huge crisis in her life that is threatening to destroy her. Marilyn goes to Ireland to recover in peace and quiet from the tragedy that she keeps secret from the world, little realising that Tara Road will prove to be the least quiet place on earth. They borrow each other's houses, and during the course of that magical summer they find themselves borrowing something of each other's lives and suffering grows into a story of discovery, unexpected friendships and new hope. By the time Ria and Marilyn eventually meet, they find that they have altered the course of each other's lives forever.
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