In Dublin last July, word of Maeve Binchy’s unexpected death rippled through the city like news of a death in the family. At bus stops and in shops, strangers passed along the news in hushed voices. RTE, the national broadcaster, opened its phone lines and archives for several days so that Binchy’s friends, colleagues and readers could share their stories. Not to be outdone, the venerable Irish Times produced a special eight-page supplement celebrating Binchy’s life.
For those few days, it seemed that Binchy’s fictional Ireland had replaced the real thing. In the city of Joyce and Beckett, a city more celebrated for its begrudgery than its benevolence, Irish writers mourned one of their own. Man Booker Prize winners Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle praised Binchy’s unsurpassed storytelling, her ability to take the most mundane, everyday domestic scene and make it funny. John Banville, another Man Booker laureate and her former editor at The Irish Times, paid tribute to Binchy’s exuberant prose that had, he said, “an effervescence that was visible in her very typing – those ellipses could look like so many champagne bubbles.” The Irish President and Prime Minister joined the chorus, as did hundreds of ordinary men and women whose lives had been touched by Binchy’s magic.
Among all the eulogies, however, it was writer Colm Toibin who caught something of the determination and self-discipline behind an unbroken stream of record-breaking bestsellers that sold more than 45 million copies worldwide, and were translated into 35 world languages. “She brought self-deprecation to a fine art,” he wrote, “but there was always irony behind it, and wit, and a sort of steely way of not ever being dull.”
Now, five months after her death, Binchy’s writing continues to break records. According to Britain’s Independent newspaper, her posthumously published novel, A Week in Winter, has already beaten even the Harry Potter books to become the most pre-ordered book ever.
Sad they may feel, knowing that A Week in Winter is her farewell novel, but Binchy’s fans won’t be disappointed. A Week in Winter is vintage Maeve, delivering that page-turning combination of sympathetic characters and pitch-perfect storytelling that has charmed readers since the 1982 appearance of her first bestseller, Light a Penny Candle.
Once again, an ill-assorted group of strangers is thrown together by some event or place, in this novel by a week’s holiday at Stone House, a small country hotel on Ireland’s wintry west coast.
After 20 years in America, Stone House’s proprietor, Chicky Starr, has come home to her native village of Stoneybridge with a burden of secrets and regrets. During Chicky’s time in America, Stoneybridge and her family have been transformed by Ireland’s decade of prosperity, but scarred, too, by the ravages of the country’s economic misfortunes.
Chicky’s dream of building a successful small hotel against all odds in a beautiful, almost derelict house fires the imagination of its elderly owner, Miss Queenie, and two young family members. Together, they transform the old house, perched high above the Atlantic, into a welcoming haven of log fires, elegant bedrooms, a cozy kitchen and a state-of-the-art computerized system with Twitter and Facebook to market the new hotel. Add to the mix of local characters a cosmopolitan group of guests who arrive for the hotel’s opening week, and you’ve got the familiar Binchy formula: a collection of character-driven short stories loosely gathered between the covers of a novel.
“I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks,” Binchy once informed an interviewer who tried to paint her with the romance-novel brush, and her fiction is as far removed from Harlequin Romance as Stoneybridge is from Babylon. Her characters learn to take charge of their own lives. They worry about each other more than they worry about themselves. Kindness and humour count for more than beauty or fame or money, and lives change for the better through a communal alchemy that dissolves selfishness.
Yes, there are a couple of weddings in A Week in Winter, but there are also several deaths and near-deaths and a birth. And there’s Stoneybridge itself, the storm-tossed seaside village and its people, which now joins Knockglen, Rossmore, Lough Glass and all those fictional communities Binchy celebrated and anatomized during her long career.
But A Week in Winter also reveals flashes of the irony and wit Toibin spotted, reminders of the journalist whose report from the wedding of Princess Anne in 1973 and deadpan profile of Samuel Beckett written in 1980 (both articles are available online) remain as sharp-eyed and laugh-aloud funny as the day they were written. In her final novel, Binchy skewers two pretentious interior designers, Barbara and Howard, who have come to give Stone House a makeover. There’s even a main character among the group of guests without a single redeeming feature, a woman so dour she remains untouched by either good food or kindness.
Would Binchy have painted out these darker tones in a final revision? Probably. Binchy was shrewd about her strengths. Despite critical disdain, she remained an unapologetically popular novelist, unflustered about appearing on the cerebral French literary TV program Apostrophes. In fluent French, she spoke knowledgeably with host Bernard Pivot about art and literature and her belief that fiction should reflect everyday life.
Years later, she recalled the interview and Pivot’s question about her philosophy of life: “What a cosmic question, but I had to answer, and answer quickly, because it was live. So I said, in French, ‘I think that you’ve got to play the hand that you’re dealt and stop wishing for another hand.’ I was afraid to look at them. But they were all nodding in agreement and when I was thinking about it afterward, I thought that is my philosophy. Trite and clichéd as that may seem, that’s the kind of motif I bring to the books.”
Nor was Binchy naive about the publishing world and her place in that world. Many of the writers who paid tribute after her death spoke both of her warm-hearted personal generosity and the shrewd, practical advice that helped to establish their careers.
For a new generation of young women writers, Binchy became an inspiration and cheerleader who single-handedly established an international brand for popular female fiction from Ireland. Sarah Webb, Claudia Carroll, Cecelia Ahern, Catherine Dunne, Martina Devlin, Kathleen McMahon, themselves now international bestsellers, have Maeve Binchy to thank for blazing that trail.
Marian Keyes, a younger writer who shares Binchy’s gift for storytelling, said that reading Binchy’s books in the 1980s was the first time she had read and loved stories written with an Irish accent. “At a time when Ireland was a theocracy in all but name, she made Irish women feel that their lives mattered and that their stories were worth telling.”
So it’s tempting to think of the ebullient Maeve, newly landed in the courts of heaven, commiserating with fellow Dubliners James Joyce and Jonathan Swift about their ailments or exchanging news with Jane Austen and George Eliot about the neighbours. And if she’s in that celestial neighbourhood, I hope she’s clinking a glass of something bubbly with Samuel Johnson and nodding as he offers her a welcoming and well-earned toast: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
Dubliner Elizabeth Grove-White is a faculty member at the University of Victoria.