Maeve Binchy

One of my book clubs has Maeve Binchy’s Quentins as the focus for discussion this week. I used one of Binchy’s books (Copper Beach) to prepare for a trip to Ireland years ago, and, of course, remember Minnie Driver as Benny in the movie adaptation of “Circle of Friends.”

Margalit Fox noted in her New York Times obituary of Binchy:

Though her pages were rife with faithless lovers, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies and even murder, Ms. Binchy resisted being described as a romance novelist. For one thing, she pointed out, her heroines were less inclined to win the dashing hero than they were to learn to live, quite capably, without him.

In response to criticism of her as a commercial rather than a literary writer, Binchy noted…

“I’m mainly an airport author, and if you’re trying to take your mind off the journey, you’re not going to read ‘King Lear,’ ” she told The Irish Times in 2000. “I’ve seen a lot of people buy my books and then fall asleep on the plane soon afterwards.”

I just downloaded her last book – A Week in Winter – finished before she died in July 2012 – to my Kindle. A feisty heroine converts an old house on the west coast of Ireland into a hotel… secrets, families, and local lore. Might be good reading for my next trip.

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The Clock Winder – Revisiting Anne Tyler

Families? Outsiders may wonder how they manage, may jealously wish to be part of one, or happily keep their distance – but no one really knows what happens inside, unless you are a member.  Just like marriages, observation can yield disparate information; only those involved really know what’s going on.  In one of her early novels – The Clock Winder – Anne Tyler uses an ensemble to demonstrate the fluidity of family.

Having read most of Tyler’s books, and just finished her latest – The Beginner’s Goodbye – I needed more of her Baltimore fix.  The Clock Winder was Tyler’s fourth book, published in 1972.  Not the Pulitzer Winner (Breathing Lessons) or the National Book Award Winner (The Accidental Tourist), or the book she considers her best work (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) – The Clock Winder still has Anne Tyler’s quiet assessment of life, with zingers cleverly interspersed throughout the narrative and her signature optimistic ending.

Elizabeth Gillespie, a young Southern daughter of a Baptist minister, is wondering what to do with her life, when she meets the Emerson family – a disparate clan full of quirks.  Pamela Emerson, a widow of three months, who has lost patience with the world as well as her handyman (who pees on the roses), hires Elizabeth to replace him.  So starts the saga of Elizabeth with Pamela Emerson and her seven children: Matthew, twins Alex and Timothy, Margaret, Melissa, Mary –  grown and somewhat fled the nest – and Peter, the youngest in college.

The story rumbles along comfortably, as Elizabeth finds her niche in fixing door jambs, cleaning gutters, stocking wood for the fireplace.  She draws the line at beheading the live turkey for Thanksgiving, and as each new member of the family comes home and is introduced, a feeling of good will and even romance pervades – ah, one of those novels.  Except Tyler has no intention of being Maeve Binchy; suddenly, another death – traumatic and catastrophic to the family.

Tyler cleverly switches gears to Elizabeth’s own family, and then back again to the Emersons with yet another life-changing incident.  You’ll keep reading just to find out what happens.  Eventually, for those who like neat endings, Tyler does tie up all those loose ends and even takes the reader into the future.

But the plot, as satisfying as it is, only provides the vehicle for Tyler’s astute observations.  Pamela’s fears of growing old and becoming a burden to her family, her well-meaning forays into trying to fix the lives of her children – after all, she only wants the best for them – offer a window into a strong woman’s determination to survive alone.  Elizabeth becomes the catalyst for the family’s growth, pulling them apart and bringing them back together in waves, as she faces herself and the life she wants.  The brothers and sisters all have roles that reflect attributes we may have and sometimes wish we didn’t.

I am never disappointed when I read Anne Tyler.  I may delve back into another of her early books, or maybe just wait.  I usually forget what I’ve read, and it would be a pleasure to get reacquainted with her characters in a little while.