I’m 100 percent Irish Catholic. If you are, too, you probably have a story like my Grandma Helen's.
Born in Philadelphia in 1914, she was sent back to Ireland during “the troubles” (Irish Civil War for Independence from those nasty Brits) when both of her parents died of TB. Her relatives couldn’t afford to feed all five of her brothers and sisters. She used to tell me (before her dementia -- she’s still kicking at 97) how they would hide from the marauder black and tans (British soldiers, not the delicious beverage) in haystacks on the family farm. She was sent back to the states in the 1920s to be raised by my great Aunt Bride. Some of her “unwanted” brothers were left behind, and through most of her childhood she was terrified of winding up in an orphanage.
I love this kind of immigrant story, which is probably why I have been reading Maeve Binchy since I was about 8 or 9, when my grandmother sent my mother one of her first novels. From that moment on, I was a lifetime devotee to the Binch. It’s in me blood.
For the non-Celt, Maeve’s an Irish novelist, best known for "Circle of Friends." She was born in 1940, so most of her early work is about coming of age in 1950s and 1960s Ireland and the colorful characters in little hamlets. She's incredibly prolific, churching out about a book a year, which you can read compulsively in a bath or a long plane ride (no matter what airport book shop you're in, there's always a Binchy book to buy).
I appreciate the stories for their Irish "Mayberry" factor -- who doesn't love to read about town drunks, priests, and the postmistresses? -- and there's always some little element of the salacious. (Lots of pregnancy intrigue and drownings and family secrets.) But The Binch is particularly artful with her female friendships. They're complex and unschmaltzy and completely human.
Obviously, I'm a devotee. She's a seriously overlooked, incredibly deft writer of popular fiction that centers on women but doesn't involve shopping or shoes on the cover. She ungaudily addresses sex and death and body image, but through a deceptively quiet lens. Of course, they can get pulpy (deliciously so -- there’s always a blackguard teddy boy who wreaks havoc on the young ladies of the village, or a tragic death that sobers everyone into being better neighbors). But for all their scrawled gold lettering, they're smarter than the average trade paperback.
If you want the best Binch has to offer, I suggest her earliest novels from the 80s and early 90s. Here’s my top 5. Wet a pot of tea, dear and settle in for a read.
"Light a Penny Candle"
My absolute favorite Binch novel and I believe it to be her best. Story of little, loveless British Elizabeth sent to Ireland during the Blitz to live with the O’Connor family in Ireland. Becomes fast bosom companion with Aisling O’Connor and returns to England after the war, but both girls are prodigious letter writers. We watch them grow up, pick the wrong men, lose their virginities, and eat scary-sounding stuff out of tins. It's a rereadable book about best friends with lots of good period detail. I wish she’d write a sequel.
Seaside Irish town in 1950’s: a rich Doctor’s son falls for the penniless daughter of the corner convenience store shop, against all odds. Boy meets girleen and then all hell breaks loose. Class warfare! Pregnancies, marriage, infidelity, suicide…juicy, classic, melodramatic Binch!
1960s town in rural Ireland gets a rich American visiting, retracing his ancestral roots. He decides to build a resort out of the ruins of a castle and it's all very metaphorical! There's vendettas and sex and curses. Also, there's a Jewish woman from New York and everyone in the village who called her a “jewess” and is eventually won over by her Jewish glamour and helpfulness. You’re welcome.
"The Glass Lake"
Last Binch book set in Ireland/London in 1950’s—Mother abandons her family of two children, and kind-hearted salt of the earth husband to run off with her earlier lover. But there's more to it than that, of course! Oh, the mix-ups and the hurt! Will we ever learn the truth?
"Circle of Friends"
COF was made into a movie in the mid 90’s with Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell, and Alan Cumming and Colin Firth at their creepiest. Remember when Colin Firth was supposed to be creepy? There are also small role byMayor Carcetti/Littlefinger, Aiden Gillen, from "The Wire" and "Game of Thrones." The movie? Is OK. The book: incredible. It's a great coming of age tale set in and around Dublin in the 1950s and it's got everything: out of wedlock pregnancies, first love, betrayal, orphans, revenge, evil protestants, and a lead character with a weight problem. I heart you, Benny Hogan. I hate you, tarty Nan Mahon.