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.
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