Maeve Binchy, Remembered.

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’.

Maeve Binchy. From Discover Ireland.

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.


75 thoughts on “Maeve Binchy, Remembered.

  1. ive been rereading my faves by anne mccaffrey (again). ive read them so many times, i know exactly what’s coming. as a phd student in english, i can tell they aren’t as “crafted” in terms of sentence structure or word choice. but the story telling is so epic and well timed that i dont care shes no virginia woolf or proust. read the stories of my youth and see the man i am today!

  2. Well put, Deborah! I completely agree. There are books that may not sit under the umbrella of great literature but they hold a firm spot in my great reads column. My daughter read Maeve Binchy and was delighted by her as well. There are books that stir and amaze us and then there are the ones that take us back to that place where reading became a part of us. She will be missed.

  3. I, too, was an English major. And I know lots of people who think Binchey is a lightweight. Not me. I love what she gave us: books with relatively happy endings. I loved her books because Maeve could spin a yarn that gave me hope that in my own imperfections maybe things could still turn out OK. I love the believe that good triumphs and that good people find each other and do good things.

    Thanks, Deborah, for a really great post!

  4. Maeve Binchy did have the BEST titles, didn’t she? Her characters were decent people, fairly well adjusted, who dealt with problems in ways I understood and usually admired. They were people I liked. She wrote books that satisfied me. If I were an author, I’d like a reader to say that about me.

  5. Reblogged this on El Blog de Joy and commented:
    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Though I haven’t read any of Maeve Binchy’s books in many years, they’re still with me. She was kind of like what smart girls graduated to after devouring Judy Blume’s books.

  6. What a lovely way to remember a beloved author. I could never have written this so eloquently, but I relate to every word. I too found Binchy’s books on my mother’s nightstand, and they transported me to a place that I hadn’t been since I was 2, yet I thought of as home. I could hear the characters speaking in the same accent as my grandmother. I felt like I was coming home to Ireland through her books. I still haven’t made it back in real life.

  7. In her last novel, Unless, the Canadian novelist Carol Shields pointed out that if a novel features the very stuff of ordinary women’s lives – casseroles, yoga, children, cats – it is automatically dismissed as light or unworthy. I think this is true, and I think it applies to Binchy because her stories are peppered with scences of baking, shopping trips, and child-rearing. Personally, I think this makes them more true to life. I generally find Binchy’s stories to be engaging, and I’m impressed by how honestly she deals with the range of the human heart.

    • Hi Naomi, I totally agree. I remember reading Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ and thinking if a woman had written this novel about midwestern suburbia, marriage, divorce and the complexities of childrearing, it might not have been as acclaimed and adored as it was.

      The struggle continues!

  8. I never read her– but I identify with the reader you were at thirteen. I still read pretty indiscriminately, from Victor Frankl to George Martin to some two-bit-harlequin- romance to Burgess to Arvind Adiga to Schopenhauer. I’ve always had my relaxed reading and good reading categories, and have enjoyed them both. From the writers you mentioned, Murakami and Morrison are favorites.

  9. A beautiful tribute — as a full-time writer (and future published author…fingers crossed…) myself, I only wish my words will someday resonate with as much power as hers did for you. Thank you for sharing this! 🙂

  10. Maeve Binchy was one of favourite authors. Her books gave me that refreshing and uplifting feel.

  11. Oh, that’s so sad! I didn’t hear about it. I didn’t read her books until I was an adult. I too got them from my mom. I recognize several of the titles you mention, and I know that I did read them for sure. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • Thanks Carol. It’s so interesting to me that many women have commented saying “I got them from my mom too”. It’s a great legacy. Even now, I love chatting to my mam about books and making recommendations to each other.

    • Thanks Roshni, when I got an email to say this post was also pressed, I thought it must be a mistake but I guess it was real! Came home this evening to lots of nice comments, I wasn’t expecting. Thank you!

  12. *sigh* I miss the reading of my childhood. Even though I read “better” books now I am not fully immersed in a book like when I was a child. I steal my reading time late in the evening and even then I know there is one more load of laundry I could be folding.
    Really lovely post. Thank you.

  13. I’m a bit of a Book Snob too. But Binchy is like grilled cheese….if I’m not enjoying my current read, or I need a break from Russian lit, I know I’ll fall in deep & enjoy it!

    • Mmmm…. grilled cheese… why did I read these comments so late at night… now I’m hungry haha! In Portland, where I now live, there’s a grilled cheese foodcart that sells all kinds of variations on the wonder that is bread and cheese. One famous version is a hamburger with all the trimmings but instead of serving it in a bun, it’s served between two grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s INSANE!

      But, yes, I can see how Maeve Binchy’s books are like grilled cheese – it’s comfort reading. And gooey in places. And you always are left wanting more.

  14. Thank you Deborah, I reblogged this. On Tuesday we also lost Gore Vidal, hope we don’t lose any more writers right now. We need all the good writers we can get.

      • I know how you feel. I read Vidal as a teenager. I just thinking about reading Maeve for my daughter. My daughter is 7 years old and I am putting together a collection of books for her to read at different times as she grows older.

  15. Aww, that’s so sweet. Binchy is probably not okay for another few years! 🙂 I remember a book called ‘Fall on Your Knees’ by Anne Marie McDonald I think. I read it when I was fourteen or fifteen and I was blown away. Again, I was probably reading it a bit before my time but I just couldn’t wait to grow up and get away from the Babysitter’s Club!

  16. I think of Binchy as a guilty pleasure. And, as guilty pleasures go, reading Binchy is pretty innocent. And isn’t that tidy little paradox part of what makes her books so enjoyable?

    • Well, I remember being a young teenager and feeling positively scandalous reading Binchy haha! Which is funny when I look back at how naive and innocent they really were. But they were my first taste of grownup books and it was all terribly exciting!

  17. Dear Irish girl,

    If I didn’t see your post on FP I wouldn’t have known that she died 😦 I read all her books, too, and bought her most recent one just a few months ago. I actually wrote to her twice, and she replied to both. I first read her in my teens but I understand what you wrote about reading tastes that evolve. Though when it came to her, I wasn’t shy to say I read her and still do. But then maybe it’s because I love anything and everything about Ireland.

    She was a really sweet lady. And your post about her is wonderful 🙂

  18. my absolute favourite author, wish there were more of those great books. I would like to live in Tara Road (or at least St. Jarlath’s Crescent!), get to know the characters and be friends!!!

    • That’s the mark of a good book – wanting to live in that world and make friends. I so badly wanted to live on the little house on the prairie, I spent many a long hour walking around their log cabin and, in my daydreams, I even liked doing household chores that seemed so exotic compared to vacuuming!

  19. I haven’t read Maeve Binchy myself, but I completely relate to seeing all those familiar titles on my mother’s bedside and bookshelves 🙂 She was a household name (at least in Ireland).

    • A legend, really. It’s only now from reading tributes and obituaries that I’ve realised the full extent of how much she was loved. I wonder what Irish (female) author could take her place? There’s no-one like her anymore.

  20. I loved and still love Maeve. I also shared the books with my mum but the other way round…I bought and read them and passed them on to her. As she has Irish background, there was an extra love in her heart for Maeve. Here are so many who loved and read her and yet it is stated, it is not good lit. Well, I’ve read far and wide and if it’s a good read that’s enough for me. Some great literature has been a struggle to endure. I guess it gets to the question, why do we read and I guess the answer to this is as varied as the literature we read. Congrats on being FP

    • I completely agree. I was so aware of what a book-snob I’ve become when I began thinking and writing about Maeve! Mea culpa.

      One of the things I’m focussing on this blog lately is the question of the value of the classics, what is “great” literature and why do I often struggle to connect with or care about these supposedly great works of art?

      I think the question: Why do we read? can’t be answered in one straight sentence. It depends on context and motivation. There are times for the ‘high’ art and there are times when we need to be informed and Maeve is for those times when we just want to curl up and get lost inside a great story.

  21. I also would not have known Maeve Binchy died. I love her books, while all so very similar in story line and the writing was amazing, it’s always nice to sit and read simple, feel good stories. Congrats on being FP and thanks for passing on the sad news.

  22. I loved some of Maeve Binchy’s books. When her books were good (Tara Road, Scarlet Feather, Light a Penny Candle), they were really good, heartwarming books. Some others were really bad though. And now I feel guilty for stomping all over them on my blog 😦

    Do you know another writer Gore Vidal also passed away? Sad day for writers. May both of them rest in peace.

    • Oh you can’t feel guilty about having an opinion. You don’t have to love her writing to acknowledge the sadness of her passing. I felt a bit uncomfortable writing this post because, if I wanted to be honest, it required me saying: “You know what. She was for me in a time and a place but, yeah, I outgrew her and if I hadn’t read her as a young girl I don’t know if I would pick her up today…” I think that’s okay. It’s not dismissing her value and her appeal to other people, it’s okay to not love every book that’s out there!

  23. I too LOVED her books as a teen, and also can’t remember much of the story lines now.. apart from The Lilac Bus – particularly the girl who wouldn’t buy her round 🙂 I was very sad to hear of Maeve’s death, such a genuinely lovely, lovely woman.

  24. Though I recently picked up a copy of “Circle of Friends” because someone recommended Binchy to me, I’ve never read her before. I can see from the number of commenters you have here that I have a serious lapse to make up for (and if I find the material a little too young for me, I can always remind myself that I actually read all the way through Harry Potter at the behest of my nieces and nephews). Good fiction shouldn’t be just one thing; a steady diet of only Samuel Beckett would be just as grim as a steady diet of anything else, I think. (Singing the old “variety is the spice of life” song).

    • I LOVE Samuel Beckett but it would be quite hellish if he were the only thing I could read for all eternity. There’s space for everything, I think. Readers have the right to discern and choose but the point is that we have a wide variety to pick from.

      Enjoy the book. It was also made into an okay movie, I went through a crazy Chris O Donnell faze and didn’t even notice his bad Oirish accent! I was a very forgiving teenager!

  25. It is amazing how “good literature” doesn’t fill you sometimes and yet “fluff” is so compelling and makes you cry. School maybe made me think of arching my eyebrow but I’d rather a story that makes me laugh out loud, and cry, and smile, and feel so full inside than proper literature any day. Not that they are exclusive. Thanks for the perspective. I enjoyed your post!
    If you want, you can check out my giveaway for an Eco Dyed Flat Crepe Silk Scarf that I made. The draw is on August 31.

  26. I enjoyed this post a lot even though I’ve only read a couple of Binchy’s books. It IS funny how our tastes change as we change…Have you ever gone back to read a book you remember loving only to find out it wasn’t as good as you remembered? I recommended a book at a book club that I remember really enjoying in my early 20s only to be horrified when we reread it and people weren’t crazy about it (including me).
    As far as your description of the change in your reading habits, that’s quite interesting. Like you I have degrees in literature, but I find I need to change the types of things I read…alternate something difficult with something easier (I still like to whip through an Anita Shreve book every once in a while). Also, I like to alternate non-fiction with fiction.

    • I love to look back upon the evolution of my reading, how I got from there to here is amazing to me sometimes.

      I haven’t re-read many of my childhood books, I should some day. But I’m definitely one of those people who hates forcefully recommending something – even a restaurant – in case people don’t like it. I’m the world’s biggest qualifier: “Well I liked it, but don’t take it from me….”

      Kind of a struggle when you keep a book blog!

  27. Thank you for your lovely post. Hearing about her short illness and death, I really felt sorry. Especially for her relatives and friends as she came across as such a nice person. I liked her collections of short stories “London Transport” and have “The Builders” on my list as teaching/reading material for classes. Funny though: everybody seems to mention ‘Tara Road’. One I have not read yet.

    • Thanks Ms C! I haven’t read any of her short stories. She has a collection called Dublin 4 I want to read. I’m from Dublin and it’s divided into postal codes (like zip codes). Dublin 4 is very posh and hoity-toity, so I want to read about all of the scandals and heartaches behind the polished and perfect facade. I think she’ll do that really well.

  28. I first read her books as a 30something adult & loved them. And I was an earnest English Lit major snobby reader in my early 20s. 🙂 But you know what? A good book is a good book regardless. She was a skilled & talented writer and it bothers me that so many women writers’ work gets denigrated as “chick lit” when it should be held in higher esteem.

  29. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your homage to Binchy…I too used read her at the recommendation of my mother and grandmother when I was young. Not all of her books were astounding, but some left me with an understanding of humanness and connection that many “greater” works of fiction failed to deliver. I did stop reading her books as I moved forward in my education but hearing the news that she had passed made me incredibly sad. So thank you saying something about it. I discovered you on “freshly pressed” and am now following your blog. It is fabulous!

    • Oh gosh, thank you!

      I also felt incredibly, and unexpectedly, sad when I heard the news. I hadn’t thought of her much in years but she was such a formative and meaningful part of my young reading experience, it was like a blast from the past and this feeling that some big part of me was gone forever too. That’s very dramatic but, at the time, that’s exactly how I felt when I sat down to write about her.

      Thanks for following!

    • Hi there, thanks for the lovely comments. I just took a quick peek around your blog, it’s so great! In the next couple of years the plan is for me and the mister to buy some land and build a tiny house by ourselves. I will be looking to you and your cottage for inspiration, great to come across you!

  30. So there were a few comments here that were actually really interesting but when I clicked on the commenter’s site, I got a phishing warning. One of the reasons I like WordPress is I had a self-hosted site and it was hacked and it was a nightmare so I don’t want to put myself or anyone at risk.

    Anyway, the comments were about not having time to read everything and I thought I’d leave up this link I replied with that delves into the dilemma of reading and how we can make decisions about what to read:

    An NPR piece called “You Can’t Possibly Read it All so Stop Trying

  31. I remember reading Circle of Friends and relating to Benny in a way I hadn’t related to a character from a book since I read Are you There God it’s Me Margaret. I continued to read {almost} every book she wrote my favorite being Quentins and Scarlet Feather. I found a copy of The Lilac Bus last fall on a book sharing shelf at work, and devoured it with in days.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    PS. I loved that you and tycobeans compared Maeve Binchy’s books to the comfort of grilled cheese sandwiches.

  32. I think we must have led parallel lives–my mother read several of Maeve Binchy’s books and I definitely remember Light A Penny Candle hanging out on her night table! I finally read one of her books, Evening Class, a few years ago. I can’t remember the particulars of the book really, except it was about some people taking an Italian class at night… or something like that. I will have to read a few more when I go back to the States!

  33. I read one of her books a few years ago — Silver Wedding. It was enjoyable, and made me want to read more of her work. She left behind a wide body of work. May she rest in peace.

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