Sunday, June 15, 2014

On Learning to Read Maeve Binchy

Perhaps we are supposed to regard Maeve Binchy’s fiction with a little bit of condescension. After all, she was so very popular, not only in her native Ireland but around the world. And reading her fiction is not demanding. But her books are engrossing and humane, and she is a great storyteller who creates distinctive characters. She writes about Dublin and Dubliners with familiarity and love, and makes readers feel they know and love Dublin as well. I usually don’t quote blurbs, but a few on the back of “Chestnut Street” (Knopf, 2014) will give readers a pretty good sense of what Binchy’s fictional world is like. The New York Times Book Review says she is “a wonderful student of human nature.” The San Francisco Chronicle tells us that “Binchy makes you laugh, cry, and care. Her warmth and sympathy render the daily struggles of ordinary people heroic and turn storytelling into art.” The Boston Globe calls her “An author of exceptional grace [with] a wickedly subtle sense of humor and a great deal of kindness.” I just read “Chestnut Street,” which was published after Binchy’s death in 2012 at the age of 72. It is a collection of stories, each separate, yet connected by the setting on Chestnut Street in Dublin. Some characters from some stories reappear in others. Each story moves along gently but smartly, and in each story a character, at the end of the story, has a realization or makes a decision. The main characters are mostly, although not only, women, and often the realizations that Binchy gives them have to do with valuing themselves more than they have; in a sense, though very subtly and without ever using the word, they are feminist in this way. Sometimes certain characters, often male, get their comeuppance, but even those scenes are relatively gentle. This is only the second of Binchy’s many books that I have read, but I found it charming and irresistible, so I will get over that sense of condescension (about which I am now embarrassed) and will probably read more of her work.


  1. When I was in college, my best friend (V.) and I tripped across ourselves in the pages of various Maeve Binchy novels. The experiences of Binchy’s characters, especially the young women, mostly working class Irish women living quiet lives in small towns, somehow echoed our own urban Toronto university experiences with such deep resonance that we were wondered if she was spying on us! We passed each other her novels, urging each other to read this or that character carefully as we sought to understand ourselves. Binchy’s wisdom and compassion helped us to develop our ideas about allegiance, religion, provincialism, fidelity, marriage, globality, and, yes, feminism. Poor Maeve Binchy fell by the wayside as we got older (perhaps a victim of that condescension you mention), although I still see her shaping my affections for various authors (an example that springs to mind is my love of John Banville, which emanates directly for my history with Binchy). I still rarely run across authors who have that magic ability to compel me to grip onto a book, ignoring the world around me, until I reach the end of the chapter or even volume. When I heard that she had died, I curled up with "A Week in Winter" – like having tea with an old friend - and then immediately sent a copy to V. I was thrilled to read of the publication of "Chestnut Street", which I am about halfway through, and am feeling grateful for all the novels of hers I ignored over the years, now waiting to be read. Thank you for your marvelous blog, Stephanie!

  2. Thank you, S., for this comment. I loved hearing how Binchy's characters and their experiences resonated with you and your friend V. You've just added another dimension to my appreciation of Binchy. Your comment also illustrates the way compelling books can sweep us up in an almost magical way; that is one of the best feelings possible, in my opinion. Thank you too for your kind words about my blog!


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