The other day I was packing some books away, taking down shelves in preparation for the writing-avoidance-paint-job I told you about. I was also trying to give away some books during this process, whittling down the thousands of books that have come to live in our house, taking a critical look at each one as I packed it and wondering, “Do I need to keep this? Will I ever reread it, or need to refer to it?”
On the top shelf was a big section of thick trade paperbacks, mostly with the worn spines that indicate multiple readings, all by Irish novelist Maeve Binchy. I hesitated for just a moment. Would I read them again? Quickly I decided: whether the answer was yes or no, I wasn’t getting rid of my Maeve Binchies. They are the meat pies of the book world: solid, warming comfort food. (I guess that metaphor only works if you love meat pie).
Just a few days after making that decision, I saw “RIP Maeve Binchy” in someone’s twitter feed.
If you’ve read my reviews of Whitethorn Woods and Heart and Soul, the last two Binchy books I read, you’ll know that I had some quibbles with the linked-short-story format of her later books, although I still enjoyed her writing. In those reviews I expressed the hope that she would write another, more traditional novel, but also the determination that I was going to continue to enjoy whatever else she produced. And now, too soon (she was 72, which no longer seems old to me), there’ll be nothing more.
The first Maeve Binchy book I read was an excerpt from Light a Penny Candle (her first novel) in a women’s magazine (back in the days when women’s magazines still carried fiction. Sadface). But the two books that stand out in my memory, that I re-read over and over and that lingered in my memory, were Circle of Friends and especially Echoes.
I haven’t reread either of them in years, but I remember vividly how angry I was at the movie adaptation of Circle of Friends, because it changed the ending of the book. Not in a small way, either — at the end of the movie, the main character, Benny, gets back together with — or at least leaves open the possibility that she’ll get back together with — the good-looking, sweet-talking slimeball who broke her heart. I was enraged — because for me the whole point of the book (and I wonder if I’m even remembering it correctly after all these years?) was that she would never have taken him back, because even though he was handsome and popular, she had realized that she, though never considered one of the pretty girls, was way too good for him, and that was such a vitally important, stand-up-and-cheer realization. Trust the movies to get it all wrong and assume she’d even give him the time of day again.
Then there was Echoes. This is definitely my favourite Maeve Binchy book and one of my favourite novels ever. In fact I probably should reread and review it for my sporadic “Old Favourites” series over at Compulsive Overreader, because it has been years since I went back to it. One of the many reasons it stayed with me was this: after I had kids, I heard so many other moms my age saying that they’d never imagined how hard it was to have and care for a newborn, that they’d been utterly unprepared for the loneliness and isolation and postpartum depression and whatnot. All I could ever think to say was, “What, did none of you ever read Echoes??!!” The vivid description of Claire’s postpartum depression in that novel was, for many years, my template for what I expected parenthood to be like (possibly why I didn’t attempt it till I was 32) and my main feeling when I had my kids was overwhelming relief that it was so much better than I’d expected, because I wasn’t living Claire’s life. That was how real Maeve Binchy’s writing was: it was commercial rather than literary fiction, but it was the very best kind of commercial fiction, real storytelling with characters so lifelike that when you put down the book you expected to hear them calling goodbye as they went out the door.
Well, that’s it. I’m just going to have to unpack those boxes and reread Echoes. Because Maeve is gone, but, like every writer, she’s not truly gone. What she left behind will always be with us, and I’m sure she knew how much that meant to her millions of readers. If I can ever write stories that linger with people and characters that come to life the way hers did, I’ll consider that a better achievement than any literary prize.