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.
His middle-aged cousin Emily arrives in Dublin from New York, something that interests Noel hardly at all, but in fact her arrival is going to be part of his future.
Emily also shares her "anything is possible" approach to life with the other characters. Soon she has Noels parents doing work they actually enjoy and has shaken up some of the more staid residents of Saint Jarlath’s Crescent. And throughout she is fascinated by Ireland in general and this little street in particular, and she is so obviously anxious to be part of it that they welcome her to their hearts.”
The character of Moira the social worker in Minding Frankie seems like a woman determined to prove that the world is every bit as dark as she believes it to be. Such people are actually quite dangerous (in life, and of course it also has sobering implications for the job she’s doing).
Binchy: “I have met many people with a bleak outlook like Moira has. For them life must be lived by the rulebook, you are always covering your back, the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of the law.
I am sorry for them. Life is a series of finding the cup half empty rather than half full; the day is always going to be dreary rather than sunny. Those who are having a good time must be somehow blameworthy.
Then we have to consider her job and how hard it is. Being a social worker means that everyone can blame you if things go wrong. Moira wants to play safe, take no risks see a great swoop of hope and optimism. She doesn’t realize all the support that exists in this community for Noel. She is a woman who was not shown much love and generosity in her life and so is now incapable of giving it and worse still incapable of recognizing it.”
It can take a lot for a person in a rut to see that the life they thought they’d live has somehow escaped them. For Noel the blinds have come down and stayed down so long he’s almost forgotten his own dreams. So part of the journey of Minding Frankie is to restore these people to themselves. (But you write about these themes so evocatively that they can only have come from experience - am I right?)
Binchy: “The blinds are indeed down for Noel. And for many people. In a magic world we could all have Eureka Moments and see the folly of our ways. Then we would set about changing things. End a toxic relationship or commit with hope to a love that had become vague and uncertain. Cut our ties with what might be holding us back or alternatively settle for a life in which there may well be happiness if we know where and how to look. It would be simpler if we had these very sure and definite turning points. But does it happen? Not a lot. I think because we are hesitant we resist change we are unsure which direction to take. I wish life could be a series of sudden revelations.
Like the great day in 1978 when I suddenly made the connection between. Smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and not being able to breathe properly! I quit smoking five minutes later and never wanted another cigarette. Not everything was as clear-cut. I believe that we - and indeed the characters we write in books - learn from life. If we are open to it we can see how the blinds on life can be lifted.”
Beloved characters from previous books make a welcome reappearance in this one. What compelled you to bring them along for Minding Frankie?
Binchy: “Very often readers write and tell me that they consider these characters friends they wonder what happened to that girl Fiona who had such sorrow in Greece. Or how the twins Maud and Simon were faring. There were a lot of questions about Clara from Heart and Soul we left her dancing with Frank. Did anything come of it? I decided to swoop around some of them and gather them to help Noel in Minding Frankie.”
Ireland’s in a similar kind of rut to Noel’s at the moment. So returning to the values that people associate with the Irish can be powerfully helpful and reassuring in that context. Now that the boom years of the Celtic Tiger years are firmly behind us, do you think an impulse to just buck up and weather the storm may have brought this particular book to life?
Binchy: “Life has changed radically in Ireland as elsewhere since the end of the Celtic Tiger. It would be dishonest to write about a happy go lucky country any more. There are many worries and concerns the economy and unemployment cast dark shadows on too many lives. Deep down the Irish did have a caring culture, it was once a place where we knew and valued the need to reach to others either to help them or when we were in need ourselves. I believe the changed circumstances and the shared anxiety will help us to rediscover those qualities. This is what happens in my story.”
Not every family looks like the ones we see in picture books. Moira is prejudiced against the “unconventional family” model she sees at work in Noel’s arrangements. How has your own thinking about family models grown and changed over the years?
Binchy: “In Ireland the traditional idea of family lasted longer than in many other places. In ways this was good since it did mean there was a deep closeness, which was accepted as the norm and created a great net of safety. However there were a few chinks in this strong family image. It could become claustrophobic where young people did not always have the chance or indeed the courage to follow their own star, live their own lives.
We all know the millions of lies that had to be told to Irish mothers, and the number of unexpected pregnancies that had to be concealed. We have seen the generations of grandchildren sent away without ever knowing the big extended families, which were their right to know, all in the name of reputation or family values. True respect is different it is valuing an individual without a need to control or criticize. And very fortunately the recent generations have brought this view firmly home to Ireland.
Some Irish parents may have sighed thinking of a world where a boy and girl married, stayed married and had many children. But no longer are these views turning into banishment and closed doors. Families have definitely changed and they are increasingly often assembled without any official ceremony from Church or State.
Parents can no longer dictate that their children marry within the Irish Catholic community nor that all relationships must be heterosexual. Ireland has moved with times, which call strongly that the world should live and let live and that every dream is worth respecting."
Sometimes in life our motivation and our heart’s desires are only gradually revealed to us. In Minding Frankie we see Noel and Moira begin to recognize how and why they need to make some changes in their lives. Do you believe in that gradual process rather than in dramatic eureka moments when the blinds go up and everything is revealed to you?
Binchy: “I write a lot about people being somehow restored in life and you wondered if I wrote this from personal experience. I suppose I have always thought it was a bit pretentious to have a "philosophy of life " but if I were pushed I would mutter about how we only get one life and its short and in the end it will be what we made it to be. There are no fairy stories. And there are no simple solutions. Being wealthy doesn't necessarily make you happy, nor being beautiful or thin or married. We have heard all this before but always have a sneaking feeling that for us it just might work! It doesn't, there are no guarantees.
But there ARE guarantees of happiness if we have an open optimistic mind, if we treat our friends and families very well, if we refuse to think we have been painted into some corner. If we realize that its up to US to find good in people and places and times and that we CAN live the life we choose then we could be very happy. I don't know how to say this to people so I tell the characters in my books instead.”
What would you like people to know about this book?
Binchy: “I would like people to know that there is a story everywhere you look. Walk along any street like Saint Jarlath’s Crescent and look at those houses. Behind the windows there are all kinds of people with all kinds of dreams and plans and worries and fear. Nobody's life is ordinary if we know where to look. And I hope you will look in these windows at Emily and Muttie and at Declan and Fiona as they make decisions and at Noel’s parents raising money for a statue and the twins planning their future. Look at Lisa whose heart has been broken by a man who had never taken love seriously. And then I hope you will agree that their future looks much better because of the support of their community and their own personal courage.”