Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A story of friendship

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.


  1. I haven't read any Maeve Binchy -- maybe because I didn't like the movie version of Circle of Friends very much. But after reading this, I think I'm going to have to find a copy of the book.

  2. I've reread half a dozen Binchy books this year and have spent much of this summer listening to some of the older ones as audiobooks, including Circle of Friends. I actually prefer her later style, which is less novel-like and more focused on interlocking stories, but really I love it all. A biography of Binchy just came out this month and I can't wait to read it.

  3. I read some Binchy years ago but can't remember now which ones. I have a few of her books on my shelves and as I'm only reading books I own now (haha) I might have to dig them out. A nice review. Pam

  4. elizabeth, I can almost guarantee that the book is better :) It's such a warm, funny story, with some real LOL moments.

    Claire, I just saw something about the biography! I'll be looking for a copy too. I really associate her with the inter-locking stories.

    Pam, I wasn't sure if your year of reading from home was going to include re-reading! Are blog reviews going to tempt you too much, I wonder? I'm glad you at least already have some Binchy on hand :)

  5. Circle of Friends is my favorite Binchy novel, too, and reading your review reminded me of just how much I loved it. I've never seen the movie, so just requested it through inter-library loan.

  6. Oh drat, just when I thought I had my reading under control, you tell me about another book that I have just got to get. I liked sprawling family-centered novels, and I do like Maeve Binchey thought I haven't read a lot of her books. Plus, I love to read about Ireland.

    >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.

    Isn't that incredible to watch?

  7. JoAnn, I'll be curious to see what you think of the movie! I know I am too picky about adaptations.

    Jane, it's not my fault, really :) I think she writes wonderfully about families as well as friends. And I love complicated plots, as long as the author can keep them straight for the reader.

  8. I have such fond,fond memories of reading Binchy as a teen. I remember reading Light a Penny Candle one long night when I was babysitting and the children were already in bed. I absolutely loved all the ones I read and especially loved Circle of Friends. Benny is such a great character. I stopped reading her in my twenties so I didn't read any of her later books - you've made me want to explore them!

  9. Anbolyn, isn't Benny wonderful? I'd love to sit down & have a cup of tea with her. With Binchy, at some point I stopped reading her newest books and just kept re-reading my favorites, like this one and Echoes. So I have some catching up to do! And I'm excited about the biography that Claire mentioned.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!