A Few of the Girls
By Maeve Binchy
319 pages, $26.95
By Michael D. Langan
Maeve Binchy (1939–2012) always seemed like a younger sister to me, family. I think I’ve read most of her writing and know her quirky, kindly take on life. She doesn’t seem to “have passed,” as they say around Washington, D. C., where I worked for over 20 years.
Suburban Ireland was Maeve’s beat, and her obvious love of people sold 40 million of her books. It is said that she finished ahead of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Stephen King, in a poll for World Book Day 15 years ago.
So what’s on offer in this new collection of short stories, “A Few Of The Girls”?
This volume contains the generosity of spirit that you’ve come to admire in her. “Maeve tells us times may have changed,” according to her publisher, “but people often remain the same: they fall in love, sometimes unsuitably; they have hopes and dreams, they have deep, long-standing friends whose secrets they shared, they go on holidays and celebrate new jobs…”
Binchy outlines these aspirations in this new collection with more of her best stories written over decades.
I don’t think Maeve figured out “what went where” as she wrote. She was always scribbling or typing ideas and thoughts for a novel or a new story, (a bit like Agatha Christie earlier), in notebooks around the house, and later on her computer. Whoever needed something, a gift to a friend, or a charity, a good story was there and on offer by Maeve. She worked fast.
Her husband Gordon Snell explains in his Foreword that Maeve didn’t write any better if she wrote more slowly. Storytelling was her magical talent, he says, and the words tumbled out onto the computer just the way that she spoke: rat-a-tat-fast. I dare you to read a few of these stories without absorbing Maeve’s warmth and good humor.
The first piece in the book is “Falling Apart”, a story about dark-haired Cathy and laughing blond Clare, friends forever. At 18 they were nannies in Spain, drinking espressos and having a smoke in their off-hours. Cathy was hoping for a degree and Clare interested in making money and having fun.
An alcoholic mother in one house and a fatherless baby in the other scotched those dreams. Cathy was having the baby. “We’re too young to be falling apart,” Clare remarked, but with a survival laugh.
These brief references indicate Binchy’s great skill: joining apposite ideas with unlimited feeling on both sides.
If I had a quibble, I would have preferred that the stories in this volume be dated, to give a sense of time in her writing. Obviously, the editors decided against this and I don’t know why. If they thought Maeve’s readers wouldn’t have a care for the older stuff, they’d be wrong. Putting the year of writing after each story – and where it appeared or to whom it was given – would have added depth to Maeve’s apercus of the world. A further afterthought: Maeve’s style changed considerably over the years. So for that reason there may not have been a dating of the material.
Perhaps as an alternative to chronology, the stories are broken up into categories: “Friends and Enemies,” Love and Marriage,” “Your Cheating Heart,” “Relatives and Other Strangers,” “Work and No Play,” and “Holidays.”
Midway, another story in the category of “Your Cheating Heart,” is “The Afterthought.” What does the title mean?
Firstly, it’s about a wife (Rita) telling her lover (Frank), a family friend, that she’ll go off with him when “the children are old enough.” Maeve sensibly asks, “How old is old enough?”
Maeve catches the nonsense of the story, writing, “There was no point in loving someone, offering them a new life, and being loved in return if you were going to cloud the whole thing up with guilt and destroy it for everyone.” (This must be one of the older stories, as this perfectly sensible advice isn’t followed much these days.)
Alec the husband is at the office a lot, having a dream that his friend Frank has fallen in love with a woman from Brazil. In this way, Maeve tells you indirectly that Alec knows he’s being cuckolded. I’ll leave you to figure out who the “afterthought” is.
Lastly, here’s an example of the “Holidays” category, “Half of Ninety.” It a piece about Kay Nolan, who’s 45. Her daughter, Helen, has let herself in Kay’s house and delivered a breakfast tray to her with some champagne on it, as a treat. Kay has to be to work at 10 a.m. at a nearby antiques shop, but she thinks, “would it really matter if she were late?”
Anyway, Helen gave her some croissants and a flask of coffee. Breakfast could go on all morning. Her daughter would be getting married in the fall, and she’d have to do the courteous bit in being kind to her former husband, Peter.
In the meantime Kay was thinking about finding a new love, a “fancy man” and … well, you take it from here.
With a touch of surprise expressed by some, Maeve was buried from her home parish in Dalkey, Ireland, on Friday morning, Aug. 3, 2012.
Frank Allen, a friend and scholar from Ireland, related, “Maeve was very open about her non-belief but said how much she envied people who had strong faith.”
Allen noted further that “Maeve never joined the ranks of Catholic Church critics, though the content of her writings would certainly depart from Catholic teaching. Alternately, her brother is a very conservative Catholic who worked to strengthen Catholic teaching in Irish law.”
In sum, if some may have argued in favor of excluding Maeve from a Catholic funeral, the majority of the Irish people would not have associated themselves with that view.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News. He holds dual U.S. and Irish citizenship.