I want to be a college student at UCD in the 1950s, in the days when it was in the city centre, in the days when people left notes for one another instead of texting or messaging. I want to be in First Arts and be in tutorials with girls like Rosemary Ryan, girls we all knew in college – fluffy and simpering around the men but sharp as a tack when making an academic point. I want to go to hotels for dances in an era where you can do a swap with the church: special dispensation for eating meat on Fridays if the dances don’t spill over into Sundays. I want to live in a small town that has the worst quality any small town can have, to be within striking distance of Dublin, and I want to be a part of that young generation in suspiciously modern clothing bringing an entrepreneurial spirit and energy to a sleepy place.
I don’t really want any of these things, of course. It was bad enough attending a convent school in Dublin at the turn of the millennium where we were still weeding out the nuns. Bad enough living in a country that still sometimes feels like the ’50s, particularly in terms of how it treats women. But the thing about reading any Maeve Binchy novel is that it’s like a warm blanket, something to snuggle into, and my favourite of all is the Circle of Friends.
Despite the movie adaptation’s presentation of a happily-ever-after, this is not a cute love story between a big-hearted, ‘big-boned’ girl and the college hunk. The clue is in the title, folks: this is a novel about friendship. And at its core is the friendship between Benny Hogan, a stocky ten-year-old when we first meet her, and the dark, quiet Eve Malone. Benny is the only child of doting parents; Eve is an orphan raised by nuns (there must always be either a nun or a priest in a Binchy novel). Benny invites Eve to her birthday party out of obligation, but they quickly become best friends, and when a mutual enemy at school is cutting about Eve, Benny pushes her over. Eve vows that someday when she’s big and strong she’ll do the same for Benny. And she will.
At college, they meet the beautiful Nan Mahon, the girl who always knows just what to say, the aforementioned Rosemary Ryan, and a group of privileged young men including Jack Foley, who Benny immediately becomes smitten with. Jack is a charmer. He’s good natured and friendly, but with very little sense of what it might be like to be shy or awkward, like Benny – even though she hides it by being jolly and jokey, being ‘one of the lads’ rather than a potential dainty love interest. And when the going gets tough – when her father dies, leaving her not only grief-stricken but needing to uncover the mystery of unbalanced accounts – he’s nowhere to be found.
But Jack is not a ‘bad boy’ – he will step up to do the right thing when it’s obvious that he should, as we see when Nan seduces him. Nan is not quite the ‘bad girl’ either – she’s incredibly cunning, but also exhausted by her attempts at social climbing. Exhausted at twenty. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, even though we are always, ultimately, firmly Team Benny.
Because Benny is every girl starting college and feeling both trapped by and yearning for home and childhood. She has a big heart and the neuroses to match. She is not thin and dainty and she knows it, and it hurts, but she never drowns in self-pity. And in Eve, she has the kind of best friend that we all dream of – the kind of person who will stand up for us, who will fight for us.
Binchy’s work is often described as ‘cosy’ and it certainly is, but it is hard-won cosiness. Benny and Eve’s friendship sustains them in a world where bad things happen do indeed happen to good people. Parents die. Other relatives are cruel and distant. So-called friends will betray you. There’s such hope and optimism in her work but there’s also an honesty: not everyone is kind. Not everyone overcomes their flaws. Dramatic personality shifts rarely happen in real life.
Her world is a world of what-ifs, where maybe things could have been very better if only, but, of course, as humans we rarely choose the option that is wisest for us. Wouldn’t it have been much better if . . . if Benny’s mother had taken more interest in her husband’s shop, if her parents had had other children. If Eve’s parents hadn’t died, if her relatives weren’t so cold, if her young cousin had been listened to. If Nan’s father wasn’t such a bully, if Nan’s plans to marry into the gentry had worked out. But this is where we are. This is how we’ll cope. There’s something immensely practical and Irish about the whole thing, that wise older woman sense of getting on with it, but offered up with a lot more empathy than you might get in real life.
Binchy is dismissed by many because her works are not Serious Literature, which means they are conversational rather than highfalutin (a thing that is trickier to do well than it seems) and mostly about women (heaven help us). Men who write about such things in a similar way win all the prizes and the acclaim (oh, Brooklyn!), but maybe there is something wrong with my lady-brain that doesn’t allow me to see the flaws in all these Binchy novels that depict what it is to be human in the world, in a community, in a family, with such authenticity and warmth. Maybe there is something wrong with me that sees bittersweetness in so many of her endings, even as critics insists that she writes sentimental fluff. Maybe I am entirely wrong about all this.
But I rather think that Maeve Binchy, were she still alive, would remind us of the need for and power of damn good storytelling – then go write another book that demonstrates just that.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, and creative writing facilitator from Dublin. She tweets incessantly about books, pop culture, feminism and more books @clairehennessy.