Review: Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
Orion €19.99, Hardback
A woman once came up to Maeve Binchy and said: "I love your books, Maeve, and if I had the time, I'd write like you." Maeve self-deprecatingly recounts the anecdote.
The dolt who made this patronising remark had no concept of the commitment it takes to be a writer. You commit to the work, and you make the time: there are no excuses.
But Maeve, who has the most optimistic nature of any person I have ever known, took the remark kindly. She saw what the dunderhead was trying to say: Maeve makes telling a story look easy.
From the moment you read the first line of a Binchy novel or story, you are somehow involved with the humanity of the subject. Maeve was 70 this year and has rightly qualified, at this milestone birthday, as a National Treasure.
Because Ireland regretfully has no official honours system, there is no official honour to bestow -- in Britain she would be made a Dame; in France she would have the Legion d'Honneur pinned to her generous breast.
In London, indeed, she has had one of the highest celebrity honours. The double-decker red buses of London Transport fly around town carrying an advertisement, the banner of which reads: "There is only one Maeve."
To be recognised, by a universal constituency, by your first name only -- like "Germaine" or "Oprah" or "Madonna" -- is the ultimate accolade.
But Maeve herself probably doesn't mind that there is no Irish honours system to confer a gong on her: she is not a discontented person, and is always thrilled and delighted with the blessings that she already has.
She wrote an article recently saying that the greatest gift an individual could be given at birth is optimism. This is absolutely so, and I think the gift is mainly inborn; but in Maeve's case it was enhanced by a happy family life, intelligent and devoted parents and lively and argumentative siblings.
It is a tribute to Maeve's family life that she can have a difference with a sibling, but never a quarrel.
She and her younger brother, Professor William Binchy, took completely opposite sides over the abortion and divorce referenda of the 1980s and 1990s.
Maeve is a secular liberal who thinks people should make their own choices; Billy is a high-minded Catholic Christian who believes that that the gold standard of ideals should be upheld by the law. But never once did Maeve and Billy exchange a cross word over their differences. Instead, they joked and lightly teased one another fondly.
Maeve is not a religious believer -- and her own story about how she lost her faith, in Israel, discovering that the location of the Last Supper was a bleak cave, while the Brooklyn-Israel soldier standing on guard quipped -- "what ya expect? A Renaissance table set for 13?" -- is hilarious.
When she has talked to me about her agnosticism, I have replied: "Maeve, the Lord came on earth to save sinners. But you're already a saint!"
And that is true. Maeve simply is a good person. Not without a streak of steel -- because every writer has to have what Graham Greene called "that chink of ice in the heart", to make use of even the most harrowing experiences -- and retaining the methodical schoolteacher's habit of the efficient use of time, carefully allocated. But still, rooted in her optimism, there is the essential goodness.
Critics have suggested that the Binchy genre is stuck in the past: this is an Ireland of kindly neighbourhood folk, loving families, and common decency.
But her texts can also be highly contemporary, and read as commentaries on recent decades of social change. Tara Road is a line-by-line narrative about changing property values in Dublin.
Circle of Friends is a tone-perfect recapturing of Maeve's university generation at UCD and their coming of age.
It also emerges, in sub-text, what little darlings most of those 1960s students were, the sons and daughters of an affluent bourgeoisie, with scarcely a proletarian in sight.
Her new novel Minding Frankie has many contemporary notes: e-mails and texting feature, as do redundancy, economic recession, addiction, cancer, and DNA testing for paternity.
At one point a character, faced with the appearance of a son he hadn't known about, says: "There is no such word, no concept of an illegitimate child nowadays.
"The law has changed and society has changed too. People are proud of their children, born in wedlock or outside."
This is true, in one sense: where once there was a horror of begetting a child out of wedlock, now there is acceptance, and should such a progeny turn up out of the blue, there is often pleasure.
But not always. There is a darker side of life which Maeve's optimism occludes.
Alcoholism, for example, isn't cured overnight: it can be a long, slow and ghastly descent into the grave, and nothing helps.
In Maeve's world, people are capable of change and self-improvement. And I think that is one of the enchantments of her writing: because readers want to believe in a sunnier, more optimistic version of humanity than they necessarily experience.
It is, perhaps, her optimism that seems old-fashioned.
And her discreet avoidance of explicit sex scenes.
Originally, she avoided explicit sex because, as she truthfully says, she didn't have any wild promiscuous experience on which to draw.
But it turned out that there is also a considerable market of readers who like, and buy, novels which don't contain explicit sex, and that turned out to be especially true in America.
Barbara Bush not only worshipped at the Binchy shrine, but gave Maeve's books, in shedloads, to all of her friends.
In Minding Frankie, the old Ireland mingles tolerantly and optimistically with the new.
But, above all, you know that the author -- be she a believer or not -- is most emphatically on the side of the angels.