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Binchy, Maeve 1940-

BINCHY, Maeve 1940-

PERSONAL: Born May 28, 1940, in Dalkey, Ireland; daughter of William T. (a lawyer) and Maureen (a nurse; maiden name, Blackmore) Binchy; married Gordon Thomas Snell (a writer and broadcaster), January 29, 1977. Education: University College, Dublin, B.A., 1960.

ADDRESSES: Home—Dalkey, Ireland. Office—Irish Times, 85 Fleet St., London EC4, England. Agent—Christine Green, 2 Barbon Close, Great Ormond St., London WC1 N3JX, England.

CAREER: Zion Schools, Dublin, Ireland, French teacher; Pembroke School for Girls, Dublin, history and Latin teacher, 1961-68; Irish Times, Dublin, columnist, 1968—; writer.

AWARDS, HONORS: International Television Festival Golden Prague Award, Czechoslovak Television, Prague, and Jacobs Award, both 1979, both for Deeply Regretted By; W. H. Smith Fiction Award, 2001, for Scarlet Feather.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Light a Penny Candle, Century (London, England), 1982, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.

Echoes, Century (London, England), 1985, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

Firefly Summer, Century (London, England), 1987, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Silver Wedding, Century (London, England), 1988, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Circle of Friends, Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1990.

The Copper Beech, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1992.

The Glass Lake, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Evening Class, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Tara Road, illustrated by Wendy Shea, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Scarlet Feather, Orion (London, England), 2000, Dutton (New York, NY), 2001.

Quentins, Dutton (New York, NY), 2002.

Two Complete Novels (includes Circle of Friends and The Copper Beech), Wings Books (New York, NY), 2003.

STORY COLLECTIONS

The Central Line: Stories of Big City Life (also see below), Quartet (London, England), 1978.

Victoria Line (also see below), Quartet (London, England), 1980.

Maeve Binchy's Dublin Four, Ward River Press (Swords, Ireland), 1982, published as Dublin Four, Century (London, England), 1983.

London Transports (contains The Central Line: Stories of Big City Life and Victoria Line), Century (London, England), 1983.

The Lilac Bus: Stories, Ward River Press, 1984, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1991.

This Year It Will Be Different and Other Stories: AChristmas Treasury, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1996.

The Return Journey, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel, edited by Dermot Bolger, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.

OTHER

My First Book (journalism), Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), 1976.

End of Term (one-act play), produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Abbey Theatre, 1976.

The Half Promised Land (play), produced in Dublin, Ireland, 1979, produced in Philadelphia, PA, at Society Hill Playhouse, 1980.

Deeply Regretted By (television screenplay), Radio Telefis Eireann, 1979.

Maeve's Diary (nonfiction), Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), 1979.

Ireland of the Welcomes (television screenplay), Radio Telefis Eireann, 1980.

Aches & Pains, illustrations by Wendy Shea, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Contributor to books, including Portrait of the Artist As a Young Girl, edited by John Quinn, Methuen (London, England), 1986; Territories of the Voice: Contemporary Stories by Irish Women Writers, edited by Louise DeSalvo, Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy, and Katherine Hogan, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1989; and In Sunshine or in Shadow, edited by Kate Cruise O'Brien and Mary Maher, Delacorte Press, 1998. Some of her plays have been produced by the Peacock Theater in Dublin, Ireland.

ADAPTATIONS: Echoes was made into a miniseries, televised in Great Britain in 1988 and in the United States on Public Broadcasting Service in 1990. Circle of Friends was made into a film, produced by Savory Pictures, which starred Chris O'Donnell and Minnie Driver.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Avoid Disappointment, a book of linked short stories.

SIDELIGHTS: Maeve Binchy is a versatile Irish writer who once reported on daily life in London for the Irish Times. She lived in London for almost fifteen years before taking up residence outside Dublin with husband and fellow writer Gordon Snell. "We have a lovely room with a long, long desk and two word processors," the novelist once said when asked about living with another writer. "We get on perfectly well sitting beside each other. Just the sound of the keyboard and the printer is all we hear. If one of us doesn't like what the other has said, the rule is ten minutes of sulking time. . . . After that the sulks can be construed as being moody or difficult. . . . We're not perfect in our judgment of each other's work, but at least we're honest. And normally we're praising—but if we don't like something, we say it straight out."

Binchy's novels, many of them best sellers, have won her critical acclaim and an international following. Set most frequently in rural Ireland, her stories of family life and intimate friendships appeal to a predominantly female audience. She has been praised as thorough in her storytelling and both astute and affectionate in her characterizations. Many of her female protagonists are women who take control of their lives in the midst of coping with such societal ills as alcoholism, adultery, and divorce. Binchy told a People magazine reporter that the message within her novels and short stories is that once people take charge of their lives, they can make things work out for the best. "And maybe that's a reassuring idea," she added. "I wouldn't like to be thought of as patting people on the head, but I wouldn't be at all offended by people who think my books are comforting." Critics note that although her writing sometimes lacks profundity, it transcends the superficiality frequently featured in popular romance novels through such subtle feminist undertones. "In 1963 we all played by the rules," commented Binchy to Cathy Edwards of the San Francisco Review of Books. "I want to write about people who make their own decisions. Women of my generation were fooled a bit—maybe all women are."

"Binchy's work, though marketed as romances, by no means fits that category precisely," noted a contributor to Contemporary Novelists. "Binchy, a longstanding columnist for the Irish Times, presents a realistic picture of the lives of women ordered within the rigidities of Catholic orthodoxy that forbid divorce and abortion. In her work, women's survival is predicated on the creation of powerful, though informal, networks of alliance and friendships that survive the vicissitudes of pregnancy, forced marriage, and alcoholism." As a writer for Contemporary Popular Writers elaborated, "Her sprawling narratives express a moral but tolerant sensibility." Critics either dismiss or applaud her particular genre as "women's fiction," or even, as Helen Birch of the Independent wrote, "600-page door-stoppers, beach books, fireside books." Most reviewers believe Binchy's work transcends these labels. Her accomplished prose contains shrewd, albeit sentimental, social analysis of Irish women's lives in the mid-to-late twentieth century.

Though best known for her novels, Binchy began her fiction-writing career with short stories and plays. As she once commented: "Because the kind of stories I used to write for the Irish Times had a fictional or almost dramatic element to them, sometimes I was approached by people in theater or television asking why didn't I try my hand at writing plays. And because I started everything in life a little bit later than everybody else (to be a cub journalist at twenty-eight was very old), I felt, OK, maybe at thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven I could start to write plays as well." Dublin's Abbey Theatre encouraged new talent and produced Binchy's End of Term in 1976.

Although one of her plays, The Half Promised Land, was eventually staged as far away as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Binchy fared far better with her efforts at writing short fiction. Her collections London Transports—originally published in two volumes as Central Line and Victoria Line—and Maeve Binchy's Dublin Four focus on the tedium of city life and the individual plights of female protagonists. In London Transports, for example, the women are often dissatisfied with their relationships with men and drawn into the corruption of Binchy's seedy London. Times Literary Supplement contributor Helen Harris pointed out that though the themes of London Transports are often bleak, Binchy writes with "ease and buoyancy." Harris also declared that the author's "portrayal of the small skirmishes of day-to-day urban survival is enjoyable; her wry observation of the different layers of London life is uncomfortably acute."

Binchy's 1996 collection, This Year It Will Be Different and Other Stories: A Christmas Treasury, received mixed assessments. A Publishers Weekly critic appraised the volume's stories as "formulaic and superficial." A Kirkus Reviews contributor was more positive, however, recommending the "collection of Christmas-centered feel-good tales" as a "bit of sentimentality and a touch of romance, along with humor and hopeful turns to treat . . . the holiday blues." The Return Journey, Binchy's 1998 volume, also received uneven, if not unflattering, reviews. A Publishers Weekly reviewer declared the work "unimpressive," faulting Binchy for, among other things, "predictable plot mechanisms" and "conclusions [that] are socked home, often in a chirpy manner." "Too many of these finely wrought tales reach their blissful destinations without hitting a single bump in the road," commented Erica Saunders in People.

A small rural town is the primary setting of Binchy's first novel, Light a Penny Candle. In this work, she depicts the twenty-year friendship of Elizabeth White and Aisling O'Connor. The girls meet when Elizabeth, a ten-year-old Londoner, is sent by her parents to live with the O'Connor family in Ireland at the start of World War II. Together the two friends experience the joys and hardships of growing up, and their close relationship endures despite such ordeals as Elizabeth's difficulties with her uncaring parents once back in London, Aisling's love affair with a onetime boyfriend of Elizabeth's, and both women's failed marriages. As in many of Binchy's stories, the book's male characters are often presented as insensitive, noncommittal, and the source of the women's problems. "It's been a while since I've enjoyed such a loutish, incompetent, drunken, selfish collection of men in one novel," remarked Carol Sternhell in the Village Voice. On the other hand, Sternhell found most of the female characters "practical, competent, and loving." Although some critics complained about what one reviewer, writing in Harper's, termed a "too heavy-handed and contrived" ending in which "one disaster after another comes crashing down too quickly," the novel received praise. "With its barreling plot and clamorous characters, Light a Penny Candle is a lilting book," asserted Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post Book World. Sternhell called the author's effort an "impressive first novel" and proclaimed that "Binchy's strength is in her honesty: she refuses to trim all edges to get us drunk on easy answers."

In Firefly Summer Binchy, observed New York Times Book Review contributor Michele Slung, "once again gives us rural Ireland, a frequently maddening yet ultimately seductive place that can render problems only in contrasting shades of old and new, past and present, strange and familiar." Patrick O'Neill, the story's main character, is an American millionaire who comes to the Irish town of Mountfern in the 1960s with the goal of converting a dilapidated manor house into a luxury hotel. His experience in a town made up of people who are either eager or reluctant to accept his business venture is the subject of the novel. Slung thought that Firefly Summer "is the best Binchy yet. . . . Here she does what she does best, which is to manufacture experience in which we fully share."

"With Silver Wedding," noted Robert Plunket in the New York Times Book Review, "Binchy tries something a little bit different, and as she does so you can sense a remarkably gifted writer beginning to flex her muscles." Instead of focusing on the dynamics of small-town life, in her fourth novel, Binchy examines the personal conflicts of the members of one family and their friends. In the last chapter of the book, all of the characters unite for Deidre and Desmond Doyle's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary party. The author devotes each of the previous chapters to one individual in the story, ultimately revealing the emotions, resentments, and ambitions of a cast of characters whose lives are all connected in some way. Plunket pointed out that the author's choice of "guilty secrets" as one theme of Silver Wedding left him "wish[ing] she'd come up with something a bit more clever," but he acknowledged that "Binchy is a wonderful student of human nature" and described the book as "an effortless pleasure to read."

The importance that Binchy places on a writer's careful observation of people and places was expressed in a "how-to" article the author wrote for the Writer. "To get dialogue right, listen to everyone, everywhere—eavesdrop, follow people so you can hear what they are saying. To get a scene right for Tara Road, I spent two days watching mothers and teenage daughters buying clothes in a store. Never hang up on a crossed telephone line, watch people in planes and trains, and be vigilant the whole time." Binchy instructs writers to outline and adhere to a general time schedule for each of their books; to think through the story and the characters, making note cards for each; to plan goals for each chapter; and then to begin writing, and when writing to do so at a quick pace. "Don't pause for breath, punctuation, too much analysis," stated Binchy. She advises writers to fully imagine their characters, their appearance, their actions, and reactions: "If you pretend they are real people, they will become so," she said. Among other pointers, Binchy told writers to refrain from analyzing the worth of their writing. "Just keep going," she urged, advocating a style in the manner of a writer's own speech: "I write exactly as I speak; I don't roll each sentence around and examine it carefully before letting it loose. If you speak in your own voice, you can never be accused of being pretentious or showing off; you can just be yourself, and that's a huge advantage in anybody."

Asked by Writer interviewer Lewis Burke Frumkes to explain her theory on her wide appeal—Binchy's writing has been translated into numerous languages and her books have outsold literary giants such as James Joyce and William Butler Yeats—Binchy stated that her writing is geared for a mass audience, unlike Joyce and Yeats: "The thing is, if you were going on a journey and you were thinking, I must read something on the plane, and if you had read any of my books before you would think, well, she tells a good story. . . . For some reason I have hit upon a form of story telling that appeals to people in different languages. I suppose they have also felt love and hope and pain, and they have had dreams and had the delight of close families and the more irritating aspects of close families. They have, perhaps, also loved people who haven't loved them in return and also might have wanted to go up to the bright lights of a big city . . . but the principle is the same. You have people who are young and enthusiastic and want to try to achieve their dream, and I think that is why people everywhere like [the characters]."

Circle of Friends also became a best seller. Set in the 1950s, the book revolves around three young women with contrasting personalities who come of age and develop a close friendship while attending University College in Dublin. Although Susan Isaacs suggested in the New York Times Book Review that "a cynical reader might reflect [that] this sort of fiction is so commonplace that the characters will be completely fungible," she lauded Binchy for portraying her protagonists as "modern women, each, in her own way, ambitious, intelligent, perceptive." Isaacs summed up the reason for Binchy's immense popularity when she declared that "the author doesn't daze the reader with narrative bombshells (or, for that matter, with brilliant language), but recounts ordinary events . . . with extraordinary straightforwardness and insight."

The Copper Beech, a set of interlinking stories set in the small Irish village during the 1940s and 1950s, "has its share of murder, adultery, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies and lots more," Anne Tolstoi Wallach commented in the New York Times Book Review. "Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, but because this is the new Maeve Binchy it all comes right in the end." Of Evening Class, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote, "Fans of Binchy's nimble story telling skills, and of her characters, who are always decent without being dull, won't want to change a thing." Jan Blodgett, writing for Library Journal, called the book "a complex tale of loves lost, betrayal, loyalty, and renewed courage." For the type of story it is, Evening Class is "satisfying," wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic, who described the characters as "a flock of middle- and lower-middle [class] worriers, loners, and groaners, all brooding on their peculiar miseries, until an updraft of love or happy coincidences set them free."

Tara Road revolves around two women who swap houses, and to some extent lives, for a summer. Both are mothers: Marilyn is an American living in New England and mourning the death of her teenaged son; Ria is a resident of Dublin who is completely shocked when her husband leaves her for another woman whom he impregnated. A Kirkus Reviews contributor declared Tara Road "one of Binchy's best." "Once again, Binchy . . . memorably limns the lives of ordinary people caught in the traps sprung by life and loving hearts," stated the critic. Through the course of the story, the women learn about each other as well as themselves. In a Booklist review, Brad Hooper called Binchy "a careful writer and a conscientious plotter."

Scarlet Feather was greeted with critical praise and, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "Binchy's gift for creating a wide range of characters whose foibles and challenges make them lovable and real, coupled with her theme that genuine love can transform lives, add up to another crowd-pleaser." Hooper commented: "Binchy writes domestic drama at its most realistic and moving, and her adoring fans will appreciate her latest work." Her fans might have appreciated it more had Binchy not announced that Scarlet Feather would be her last novel. According to Christina Cheakalos writing for People, after reading the announcement in Binchy's Irish Times column, "More than 800 readers wrote in to say don't go." Writing in Chatelaine, reviewer Bonnie Schiedel commented, "She's going out on a proverbial high note," calling Scarlet Feather "a delicious read."

Regardless of her announcement, Binchy made a surprise return and produced yet another novel, The Quentins, that continued with the modern Dublin theme she used in Tara Road and Scarlet Feather. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "Fans of the bestselling Binchy will be grateful that the basic formula is still intact—decent people pulling through hard times—and that some favorite characters from previous novels reappear." This is a story in which the inhabitants are proud of their cosmopolitan attitudes and, as Christine C. Menefee pointed out in School Library Journal, "underlying [the characters'] lives and choices are strengths of family and friendship, and a loving kindness, that still confirm the outsider's hopeful expectations about traditional Irish culture."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Bestsellers 90, Issue 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990, pp. 3-4.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 15, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of Tara Road, p. 706; December 15, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of Scarlet Feather, p. 763.

British Book News, May, 1986, p. 308.

Chatelaine, October, 2000, Bonnie Schiedel, "Tea and Empathy," p. 18.

Chicago Tribune, March 17, 1991, section 6, p. 3; October 27, 1991, section 14, pp. 3, 11.

Cosmopolitan, February, 1995, Chris Chase, review of The Glass Lake, p. 18.

Detroit Free Press, December 23, 1990.

Harper's, April, 1983, review of Light a Penny Candle, pp. 75-76.

Independent, May 12, 1995, Helen Birch, interview with Binchy, p. 25.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1996, review of This YearIt Will Be Different and Other Stories: A Christmas Treasury; January 1, 1997, review of Evening Class; December 1, 1998, review of Tara Road.

Library Journal, February 1, 1997, Jan Blodgett, review of Evening Class, p. 104; February 1, 1999, Carol J. Bissett, review of Tara Road, p. 118; September 1, 1999, Barbara Valle, review of Tara Road, p. 252; September 13, 1999, Daisy Maryles, "Irish Eyes Are Smiling," p. 20; March 1, 2000, review of Aches and Pains, p. S10.

Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1986; January 14, 1991, p. E3.

New York Times Book Review, January 12, 1986, Kiki Olson, review of Echoes, p. 20; September 18, 1988, Michele Slung, review of Firefly Summer, p. 13; September 10, 1989, Robert Plunket, review of Silver Wedding, p. 18; December 30, 1990, Susan Isaacs, review of Circle of Friends, p. 8; December 8, 1991, John Kenny Crane, review of The Lilac Bus, p. 22; December 29, 1992, p. 16.

People, December 14, 1992, pp. 34-35; March 30, 1998, Erica Saunders, review of The Return Journey, p. 31; August 28, 2000, Christina Cheakalos, "A Novel Retirement," p. 147.

Publishers Weekly, August 26, 1996, review of ThisYear It Will Be Different and Other Stories, p. 74; January 6, 1997, review of Evening Class, p. 62; February 16, 1998, review of The Return Journey, p. 201; December 21, 1998, review of Tara Road, p. 51; April 17, 2000, "June Publications," p. 70; January 8, 2001, review of Scarlet Feather, p. 45; September 23, 2002, review of Quentins, p. 50.

San Francisco Review of Books, winter, 1992, pp. 6-7.

School Library Journal, February, 2003, Christine C. Menefee, review of Quentins, p. 172.

Times Educational Supplement, May 24, 1991, p. 38.

Times Literary Supplement, November 28, 1980, p. 1366; April 1, 1983, p. 324; March 30, 1984, p. 354.

Village Voice, May 17, 1983, Carol Sternhell, review of Light a Penny Candle, p. 50.

Washington Post, January 17, 1986; September 11, 1989, p. D3; December 24, 1990, p. C3; November 7, 1991, p. C3.

Washington Post Book World, May 1, 1983, Dennis Drabelle, review of Light a Penny Candle, p. 10.

Writer, February, 2000, Maeve Binchy, "Welcome to My Study," p. 12, and Lewis Burke Frumkes, interview with Binchy, p. 14.

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