Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy
It has a been a good while since I've read anything by Maeve Binchy, though I've loved her books for many years. I first heard about her from my mother, who was a steady reader but unlike me didn't talk much about her reading. So it really caught my attention when she told me that she loved a book she had just read, Light a Penny Candle, and that alone made me want to read it too. From there I went on to read many more of Maeve Binchy's books, some just as they were published (when buying a hardback book was still a novelty). The other day, flipping through TV channels, I came across the 1995 film version of Circle of Friends, my favorite of her books. I have never seen it, on my long-standing principle of avoiding films made from books I love. The ten minutes or so that I watched both confirmed that principle and made me pick up the book again.
There are so many things I love about this book. As the title suggests, it is above all a story of friendship, set in the late 1950s. It starts with an unlikely pair: Benny Hogan and Eve Malone. Benny is the only daughter of older and very protective parents. Her father owns the menswear shop in their small town of Knockglen. Eve is an orphan, the child of a hasty marriage between a rebellious daughter of the Westwards, the local Anglo-Irish gentry family, and a handyman in the town. When her parents died soon after her birth, Eve's grandfather refused to have anything to do with her, and she was taken in by the sisters who staff a school in the town. Both Benny and Eve are outsiders, Benny in part because she is a big girl, tall and heavy, Eve because she lives at the convent and is never quite dressed right. In their friendship they find love and support, standing up for each other in school squabbles and in the larger community. Even after they move on to university in Dublin, meeting new people and expanding their circle of friends, their friendship remains at the heart of the story.
But there are lots of other things going on in this book as well. First Binchy introduces us to Knockglen and the people who live there. She excels at creating this kind of community, with different characters whose stories twist around the main one. A major subplot involves Benny's father Mr Hogan, who takes on a new worker, Sean Walsh, who has his eye on both the business and his boss's daughter. Peggy Pine, who runs the town's dress shop, also gets a new employee, Clodagh, a niece from Dublin, who brings some very modern clothes and attitudes to a town that isn't quite ready for them. Peggy has a great ally in town, her old school friend Bunty, now Mother Francis, the superior of the convent and Eve's surrogate mother (one of my favorite characters). Meanwhile Clodagh finds an ally in Fonsie, also newly-arrived from the big city, to help his uncle Mario in his chip shop. Like her he has big plans for the family business, visions of a café with bright lights and a jukebox to liven up the quiet evenings in Knockglen.
From there, Binchy takes us to Dublin, as Benny and Eve head off to university. But the story returns frequently to Knockglen, as Benny returns there every night. Her protective parents refuse to let her live in the city when she can catch a bus home and sleep in her own bed. In Dublin, they make new friends, including the charismatic Jack Foley, with whom Benny falls deeply in love; Aidan Lynch who pursues Eve despite her lack of encouragement; and Nan Mahon, whose Grace Kelly-esque good looks and poise hide a difficult home life and calculating ambition.
To me, this is one of Binchy's best books. She creates such wonderful characters, who feel like real people, with lives that carry on after the story has ended. As one reviewer noted, this book "begs for a sequel," and I so wish she had written one. Though there are as many subplots as in a Trollope novel, like Trollope Binchy keeps them all in balance and keeps her story moving forward. And like Maura Laverty, another Irish author she admired, she writes evocatively of place and community. There are still a couple of her last books that I haven't read yet, and I'm looking forward now to more reading and re-reading of Maeve Binchy.