Maeve Binchy's greatest gift was the ability to make a reader see that there really was no such thing as an ordinary person or an ordinary life. Anyone could be heroic; in fact most people’s courage in the face of their daily struggles could take your breath away the late, lamented writer reminded us.
Sleepy little Irish villages could conceal bubbling cauldrons of unexpressed resentments and hard hearts. The only thing you had to do to see it was step back, or just pick up one of her chatty and quietly forensic novels, to peer right into the beating heart of life in the Republic of Ireland from the mid-20th century through its Celtic Tiger collapse.
From the beginning of her career until her death in 2012 at the age of 72, that lesson was at the core of her achievement. Look again, she told us, people are incredible.
In A Few of the Girls, the beguiling new collection of Binchy's short stories selected by her longtime editors, we hear the compassionate note that was her signature repeatedly. If she had so much sympathy for most of her characters, it's because she had it for most of the people she actually met.
You can see where she got it. Before she was an international best-selling author Binchy was a teenage schoolgirl anxious about her appearance, then a university student ardently in pursuit of love, then a hardworking London-based journalist struggling to keep the roof over her head and her marriage together.
There was, she discovered early on in her career, no magic formula for success as a writer, no more than there was a formula for success as a career woman or wife. You mostly had to learn the job by doing it she discovered, which means making mistakes too, inevitably.
In A Few of the Girls, the first story in the collection is the discreetly devastating “Falling Apart.” An on the surface tale about the ups and downs of a long friendship between two young Irish women, it's really a searing exploration of how families can brutally sabotage the people that they loudly claim to love.
Binchy, who was born in 1940 and who grew up in the heyday of what you could call theocratic Ireland, is especially good at charting the tension between how things look on the surface with the rawness that often exists underneath.
In “Falling Apart” we see an alcoholic, housebound mother railroading her doormat of a daughter into a life of total dependency thanks to her destructive addiction, while failing to notice the damage she's doing.
When Clare, the daughter in question, finally realizes just how trapped she's becoming and how little thanks there will ever be for her long list of personal sacrifices (including a fragile shot at romance) she finally turns her life around in a moment that will make you want to cheer for her.
Finding the courage to live the authentic life you have only dreamed of is a perennial Binchy theme because it was also a Binchy reality. It took her decades to divest herself of the inherited and unwelcome baggage of her conservative Catholic upbringing, to find the courage to just be herself.
Is this dress too racy? Is this shade of lipstick immodest? Is this coat cut too high, is my neckline too low?
These were some of the profoundly consequential questions she was taught to ask herself in the early 1960s, a buttoned down period in Ireland when the dawn of the miniskirt was staunchly being resisted by the Irish clergy.
Binchy was deeply aware, because all young women of the period were made aware, that their reputations could be lost in one thoughtless moment, and once lost they could never be remade.
When she was growing up people rarely asked Irish women what they thought about anything she recalled, because people were usually only really concerned with what the neighbors or the local curate had to say.
Climbing out from under that oppression is a lifelong process, and it’s something she writes about so well because she lived it. There's no question that the famous warmth and good humor in her stories, including the ones collected here, are partly the result of her Irish background (we tend to have a high threshold for eccentric behavior), but they're also partly the result of her rich life experience.
“The Irish do love telling stories, and we are suspicious of people who don’t have long, complicated conversations,” she once remarked. “There used to be a rule in etiquette books that you should invite four talkers and four listeners to a dinner party. That doesn’t work in Ireland, because nobody knows four listeners.”
In the title story “A Few of the Girls,” Binchy focuses on the way life has of forcing school friends to come to terms with other’s shortcomings (and their own). The first tentative steps toward adult life have long ago been taken, and now it's win, lose or draw as Binchy captures the inner life of her characters in a few lines.
The Irish are mad for keeping tabs on each other, on a lifelong score card, since they usually start out with little more than their own determination. Binchy's awareness of Irish tribalism and the double edged scrutiny that accompanies it helped make her a writer of national and international fame.
The book is divided into sections including “Friends and Enemies” and “Love and Marriage,” but it's sections like “Your Cheating Heart” that remind us that Binchy depicted human nature in full and was often more of a bracing social critic than she's given credit for.
The one constant in this book and in her long career is her sheer enjoyment of human diversity. Even a lively little suburb town like her beloved Dalkey, where she was born and raised and lived out most of her long happy life, was teeming with unforgettable stories of love lost and love found, she realized. That keen awareness drove her writing life.
A Few of the Girls gives us stories of hopes raised and dashed, albeit temporarily, while still casting about for those elusive sliver linings. She doesn't flinch from the darkness that can fall in life, but she always retains her sense of humor and her hopefulness at all times. Like all the most gifted story tellers, she understood that nothing lasts forever, not even happy endings.
In the space of a few paragraphs she can range from the events of the most typical day to matters of life and death. This new collection of 41 of her short stories is filled with epiphanies, as the blinds go up in her character's lives and they finally understand where they are, what's happening and what they need to do about it.
Buy this and you won't need central heating this winter. The cheering collection will do all the work for you.