Endless curiosity about people and a generous enjoyment of human nature are the hallmarks of Maeve Binchy’s life and work. Sadly she passed away last July, but she’s left us with A Week in Winter, the spell-binding final novel that shows her at the height of her powers. Cahir O'Doherty considers the life and work of the unmatchable Irish author.
If you’ve ever spent a week in an Irish guesthouse in the company of a cast of characters that Agatha Christie herself might have hand picked (and who hasn’t?) then you’re going to love Maeve Binchy’s final novel.
Few writers knew Ireland or the Irish better than she did, frankly. It’s why she became an international bestselling author, and it’s why other more critically celebrated Irish authors loved her too.
In particular, Binchy had a real gift for uncovering the passions, hopes and private hurts of her instantly recognizable Irish characters, and then making you care about their fates. That takes real skill.
Her final novel, A Week in Winter, is easily as strong as the other 19 books that made her reputation, and there's a special poignancy in knowing this one is her last.
But there's consolation in knowing that wrote the book at the height of her powers and that it's the best possible tribute to her long and successful career.
Set in a small fictional Irish coastal town of Stoneybridge where everyone knows each other, in A Week In Winter Binchy, who passed away last July aged 72, introduces us to an enterprising young woman named Chicky who has just realized her lifelong dream, to take over a decaying Stone House mansion and turn it into a going concern.
The locals think she’s crazy. Who’d holiday in a guesthouse in this godforsaken backwater, they demand?
But before the paint is even dry on the walls the first guests are arriving. They include John, an American movie star who thinks no one recognizes him because the Irish refuse to invade his privacy or make a big fuss.
We also meet Nicola and Henry, husband and wife, both doctors, who find themselves spiritually shaken up, by having witnessed far too much death. Unsurprisingly, they’re looking for a little rehabilitation themselves, and at Stone House they have certainly come to the right spot.
Then comes Miss Nell Howe, a retired schoolteacher who finds she must criticize everything and everyone she encounters. Miss Howe, we discover, is the sort of woman who makes flowers wither as she passes.
Severe and cold, she’s actually toxic to the hopes and dreams of the people around her. From the moment she appears you begin to ache for her comeuppance.
Next up is Lillian and Winnie, a mother and would-be daughter-in-law who have been forced into taking a short holiday together, with all the tension and awkwardness that implies.
Binchy doesn’t spare us the embarrassment or anger that eventually erupts between them, and her you-are-there portrait of two decent but very different women attempting to make peace is one of the highlights of the book.
She's particularly good at conveying the distances, seductions and tensions that can open between people, and A Week in Winter is unflinching in its honesty.
For years dismissed as a romance writer, real fans of Binchy’s work know that she's never been afraid to tackle the darkest themes, nor are her characters walking paragons of virtue. Instead they're all too human, with all the good and bad that goes with it.
When I asked her last year about her habit of writing characters who contain elements of saintliness and selfishness combined, she laughed in agreement.
“It is more interesting writing about someone who has flaws as well as strengths like the rest of us,” Binchy told the Irish Voice.
“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!”
The women in her books are always spirited and smart as hell and some of the men are too, the way it actually is in Ireland.
Binchy's focus on everyday people, and the ability to see that if you look closely, there is really no such thing as every day people, is why she's so adored by her fans. It helps that's she can be screamingly funny too.
In A Week in Winter Binchy has assembled a likeable group of people who, whether they know it or not (and in the beginning they mostly don't) are looking for a change in their circumstances that will lead them toward the life they always imagined they should be living. In the process they step into themselves.
“In a magic world we could all have eureka moments and see the folly of our ways,” Binchy said last year, referring to the way in which her characters slowly come to a realization about themselves.
“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 she suddenly made the connection between smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and not being able to breathe properly, she laughs.
“I quit smoking five minutes later and never wanted another cigarette. Not everything was as clear-cut for me,” she said.
“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.”
In A Week in Winter those blinds go up in chapter after chapter, which are named for each of the principal characters she's focusing on. In that way the book brings an Irish community to life as she steps in and out of the shoes of each player in the drama.
There's also a lovely awareness of the ways in which Irish life is reorganizing itself now in the shadow of the collapsed Celtic Tiger economy. To make her point Binchy introduces us to the bloated O'Haras, whose background in banking and finance comes replete with a sense of entitlement that makes you loathe them on sight.
It's hard not to imagine that she was commenting on the damage that such men did to the national fabric, or in her faith that the Irish people will eventually shrug off their damaging example.
“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,” Binchy told me last year.
“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 out 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.”
A Week in Winter, published by Knopf, will be released on Tuesday, February 12.