With her new novel Minding Frankie, author Maeve Binchy will delight her legions of fans across the United States with a heartwarming tale of a community responding to a personal crisis.
When young alcoholic in training Noel learns he has fathered a child with a dying woman, he has to reluctantly step into the role of father to his infant daughter Frankie in just a matter of weeks. Help comes in the shape of his American cousin Emily, who ropes in the community and a few familiar faces from previous Binchy books. But will Moira, the tough as nails social worker, undo all their valiant efforts? Read on…
Noel is a fabulous character, a man who – through neglect of himself – is almost telegraphing to the universe to either flatten or redeem him. Is it fun to write a character that is – on the surface at least – so prickly and possibly unlikeable?
Maeve Binchy: “It IS more interesting writing about someone who has flaws as well as strengths like the rest of us. I don’t like these “perfect” heroes or heroines who look flawless, dress elegantly are highly successful at work and immensely attractive and desirable to everyone they meet. Those kinds of people don’t exist - or if they do I never met them!
Sometimes when we meet people who do come across as prickly and unlikeable as you rightly say Noel appears to be - there is a reason why he has become this way. I wanted us to see him, and feel a twinge of sympathy and pity over his dull job doing work that bored him, his oppressively religious home where he felt he had totally disappointed his parents by not going for the priesthood.
Yet at the same time we want to shake him and tell him to get on with it. We have only one life and he is wasting his, especially since he has taken up lone drinking which makes him more self-pitying than ever.
Something has to happen to Noel, something so extraordinary that it jerks him into a wakeful state. At first he is so shocked he wants to run away from the responsibilities which face him, but he has a basically good heart and it was interesting and a challenge to make him change his mind and to make us the readers want to fight his battles for him.”
Quietly, without any fanfare, the story reminds us what a powerful force for good a community can be in times of crisis. Our lives aren’t fixed and fated, the book reminds us, there is help and you can in fact interrupt the narrative of your own life and step into a new one - is this close to the idea you wanted to express?
Binchy: “I agree with you so much that a sense of community is a hugely important force for good in times of a crisis. When I was young in Ireland in the 1940's and 1950's we were all like young people everywhere, trying to escape from what we thought were the prying eyes of too vigilant a small community.
We lived in villages or districts or suburbs where everyone knew everyone else and got involved in their lives. We longed for the anonymity of a big city like Dublin, London or New York. But if we are honest we will admit that as well as adventure and freedom in a place where nobody knows you or cares about you, it can become very lonely.
There is a great comfort about being with people who knew you way back when. There is a mental shorthand, and easygoing feeling that life doesn’t have to be explained or defined; we are all in more or less the same boat.
To have a community around you in a changing and unstable world is invaluable.
Nothing can beat the feeling that there will always be people out for our good, there will be many houses where in a crisis a child can be left safely sure of a loving welcome, a feeling that people are keeping an eye out for us.
We can indeed change the course of our own lives, and it is much easier if we know there are those who help us when we fall. There is no law that says we must stay doing the same thing for decade after decade if we have the courage to take that first step out of a rut. We are not better people if we stay in the rut; we are often worse people duller, more depressed and having little to offer to anyone else.”
I can’t help thinking that it’s significant that Emily is American. To Americans the future often implies hope and the possibility of change (often the opposite of what it means for the Irish). Am I right in suspecting a little American optimism and a can-do attitude are things you’d like to see a little more of in Ireland right now?
Binchy: “Something that I have always admired about America is the attitude to education. We in Ireland used to think that school finished, at the very latest when we were seventeen And then if we were lucky enough to go to a University that finished when we were 25 and then the course of our lives had been marked out.
In the US everything is much more fluid, people enroll at any age; they can have several careers in one lifetime. So when somebody provides the chance for Noel to take up his education again it made sense to me that she should be American.