I only remember the names: Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends.
When I heard today that Maeve Binchy had died, I was instantly a girl again, pilfering her books from my mother’s bedside table: Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends. So immediate and familiar, those names. But, fifteen or more years later, when I looked those titles up, I recognized very little about their plots or characters, the details and particulars – only hazy images and fragments: I may not have read them at all for all I could truly recall about them.
I feel like I’ve read Tara Road but I cannot say for sure. Perhaps my girlish ear just liked the alliteration in the title Light A Penny Candle, but did I ever read it? All I know is those names are so familiar to me, that at some point in my young years I internalized them as something meaningful that now conveys a combination of ‘home’ and ‘Ireland’ and ‘adolescence’ and ‘being a girl’ and ‘being a girl on the cusp of something’.
Somebody on Twitter said: “RIP Maeve Binchy, a lady who wrote about girls with big dreams, for girls with big dreams.” If I can’t remember the particulars of plot and story, I do know that this must be what hooked and impressed me at the time. Girls and big dreams. If I were to say, honestly, who my ‘influences’ were as a young girl who dreamed of writing, I’d have to include Maeve Binchy. At twelve or thirteen, she was all I knew of grownup books and I remember reading and thinking: I want to do this some day.
But, would I answer honestly? If I were ever asked.
That was at twelve or thirteen. I see myself now at thirty-one and wonder at the literature snob I’ve since become. It wasn’t too long ago that I laughed with my mam on the phone about Binchy and books, and the books we used to read. I grew up to get a degree in English and a Masters in Women and Gender Studies. Since I was twelve, I’ve read Beckett and Joyce and Woolf, Judith Butler, Derrida, Foucault and Cixous. My mother’s reading tastes have evolved and broadened too. We’ve outgrown Anita Shreve and Marian Keyes. We read Toni Morrison now, and Susan Sontag and Mavis Gallant. We would never read Maeve Binchy now, I said not long ago.
But that was not so long ago. When I didn’t know how sad I’d be to hear that Binchy was gone, when I didn’t know that I would feel as though something real and important has been lost. But what, besides Binchy, has been lost?
I wonder am I as happy a reader as I was as a girl with my nose in a world of rural romances and small town affairs and intrigues? I read many beautiful, complex, enigmatic sentences these days: sentences that require contemplation and reexamining and, sometimes, futile deciphering. I’m a better reader, a satisfied and challenged reader. And, not to be mistaken, I am a happy reader still. But when was the last time I lay on my belly on my bed, swinging my legs in the air and wondering, giddy, what would happen next or whispering come onnnn, just kiss will ye?
I recently gave Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder just two stars on Goodreads. In terms of language and technique and impressive sentences, I couldn’t honestly say that I thought all that much of it. It wasn’t as philosophical or raise the complex ethical questions I wanted it to. I hated the ending! I didn’t feel enriched or better for it. In some ways, it was a waste of my time. But I did, as they say, devour it. I read it in a couple of idle afternoons whereas it’s taking me a long time to read Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle which I love and think is excellent. I am savoring it and dwelling on it and absolutely enjoying it, but I just had to know, right away right away, what happened in that jungle in the Amazon!
Ideally, a novel would encompass both things. Beloved did that for me and Cloud Atlas and Geek Love. But something has been lost along the years.
I will never be that gangly, spotty girl who read so indiscriminately, who read whatever she could get her skinny fingers on and cared not a whit if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or challenging or innovative. She just wanted words and stories, any words and stories. She didn’t distinguish between literature and ‘fluff’. There was no such expression as Chick Lit in 1994. My eyebrow didn’t arch at things that were popular, and romantic and provincial, that dealt with sadness or difficulty in a way that never got too dark or heavy – were always, somehow, light.
Yes. My eyebrow didn’t arch. I rested my chin on my hands. I lay on my belly on my small single-bed. I swung my legs in the air. I was young and dreamy and absorbed and away. I loved Maeve Binchy. I read everything of hers my mother owned – Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends – and some of them I know I read more times than one. I thought she was brilliant, that I’d never read anything like her. And, I hadn’t.