I can remember the first time I was curious enough to mention Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends to another friend who reads, one whose tastes are perhaps a little less specialized than mine. She said, “You probably wouldn’t like her; it’s not really literary fiction.” I persisted, and she said “Well, it’s more like popular fiction, kind of gossipy and low-key. No big symbols or literary stuff to interpret, it’s mostly just about people’s lives in a small town in Ireland, and how they change when exposed to social currents from Dublin.” So, I thought, well, I’ll see the movie, which got some acclaim, and in which Minnie Driver starred, I wasn’t sure in what role; that seemed like a good way to approach the thing.
But something came up, and I missed the local showings of the movie, and by the time everything was over, I had gone on to something else. This made me all the more curious when a copy of the book fell into my hands from a free book shelf (don’t ever believe that it really happens that way–it didn’t “fall into” my hands, I regularly prune certain free book shelves with effort and abandon to get books I think I might like to read).
True enough, when I read the book blurb, it didn’t seem like my kind of book; for one thing, it was about a hometowny little friendship between two girls who go on to university together, and it sounded fairly humdrum. No Pulitzer or Nobel there. Then I started to read. I found other reasons not to get too excited about the book; for one thing, it seemed to have a number of places in which the dialogue that should logically have been in the mouth of one character came from another character, or there was a typo, or one character’s name seemed to be given for another character’s. This was a minor distraction, however, once I got involved in the story.
What I found was that the author was a penetrating judge of character, and though most of her creations were young and just starting out in life, she had a knack also for writing about the older people in the book and their conflicts and disappointments. Though the young university students and their cohorts are spoken of as the “circle of friends” once or twice in the book and are the central focus, by the end of the book the whole cast has become one whose lives have importance to the reader. It’s as if we are having a gossip about them all with the village maven. Every character, no matter how minor, has a fate or an ending, or a new beginning, and though there are no major surprises in the way they turn out, yet everything develops satisfactorily and in line with one’s sense of poetic justice. This treatment, though it is decidedly not literary in the sense of showing just how arbitrary life can actually be, and how ironies can multiply and interact, is still the source of a satisfactory read. After all, there are also instances in real life when people do get what’s coming to them, whether for good or for ill, and those can also be written about: not everything is some huge black catastrophic event or supplies a constantly pointed little fictional essay that baits the reader and leads him or her to expect what isn’t delivered and to be disappointed as a source of entertainment.
Which is to say, when all is said and done, that Maeve Binchy delivers no more and no less than the blurbs have contracted for: she is a reliable and percipient author who, though perhaps a bit lingeringly romantic or sentimental, never puts the romance or the sentiment in the position of having to carry the entire load of the plot effects. Circle of Friends, though not a book I would necessarily find it important to reread in order to get anything I didn’t get the first time, might become a soothing anodyne that I would read again because it reassures me about humanity in the main. I seem to remember that I read of Binchy’s death some time back, and I can now see why her devoted readers created such a stir about her potential absence: she has a kindly, open, wise, and perceptive mode of writing that while not pretending to be full of literary tricks and technical achievements is nevertheless full of human warmth and good humor. Now I suppose all that remains is sometime to watch the movie and see if the movie magnates have managed to capture the work of her great heart on film.