There is much of a muchness about Irish writer Maeve Binchy. First, there's the number of books she's written: eight novels, six short story collections and two nonfiction, most of them in the last 16 years. Then there's the heft of those books--"Tara Road" (Delacorte Press, 1999), the latest, claims a good 2 1/2 inches of shelf space with its 502 pages, and that's actually a bit slim by Binchy standards.
And then there's herself. At 58, she is not a small woman at 6 feet, and she brims with words like a river after hard rain. Five minutes into a phone conversation with Maeve Binchy, you simply toss the pen skyward, blessing the angels and saints for the invention of the tape recorder, and let the brogue-rippled words wash over you, like the waters of the Liffey, like the waters of the Boyne.
"If my husband left me suddenly out of the clear blue sky," she says, explaining the motivation for her newest novel, "I think I'd want to go somewhere that would give me energy. And America has always given me energy. There's something in the sidewalks and the air, the people walk faster, they think quicker, they're more hopeful. I'd want to get far, far away from Dublin because Ireland is a small country and everyone would know what was going on. And I'd done a house exchange and I knew the intimacy of that. After living in someone else's house, I felt like I knew them better than people living on my own street. I knew that they paid some of their bills late, put their nice towels on top, the shabby ones beneath and so on."
She's in San Francisco, finishing up her first American tour, seven cities that did not--harrumph--include Los Angeles. ("I know, I know, and I'm very sorry about that," she says. "We are, after all, at the mercy of the publicists. Next time we'll come down for sure.")
In "Tara Road," the first Binchy story to cross the Atlantic, Ria Lynch, a Dublin woman seeking sanctuary from an imploding marriage, swaps houses with Marilyn Vine, a woman living in Connecticut. Marilyn has some issues of her own, as do the other numerous denizens of Ria's neighborhood, Tara Road. A hallmark of a Binchy book is a cast of characters Dickens would relish, all pairing and sundering, congregating and dispersing in an operatic minuet. Plots and subplots surface and submerge, like tree roots in the grass running toward the heart of the matter, which is always acceptance and growth.
In fact, "Tara Road" is a classic example of what has become the Binchy genre--strong but mildly imperfect women facing down the obstacles conjured by society, the church, economics and charming but shiftless men. Binchy's is not a war-torn Ireland; she deals solely in the middle class of the Republic--the countryside of peaceful lakes and brilliant green hills, a Dublin that bustles with fish and chip shops and progress, a people concerned with the travails of daily living. Nor is it a place of misty-moisty artistic sorrow; the pipes, the pipes are not calling Binchy's name. Her optimism is unquenchable, her belief in hard work and faith in one's self unshakable.
Oh, but it is undeniably Irish. Not just the lyrical descriptions of the green, green grass or the shimmering waters, but in the talking. Binchy, a former reporter and still columnist for the Irish Times, obviously listens as intensely as she speaks--her dialogue runs clean and clear and believable, and there is plenty of it. Which is fitting when you consider the well-spring.
"I'm a great believer that as long as I get the description of the place right, most characters are the same, aren't they?" she says of her first attempt at internationalism. "More unites two women in their 30s than divides them. I have to believe this," she adds, this time not stopping for breath, "because my books are in 32 languages, and when I see them in Korean and Indonesian, I think, 'However can these people understand?' But really, I'm writing about life and love; that's the same the world over, isn't it? I'm sure there are Koreans in the country who have dreamed of the bright lights of Seoul, and there must be people there whose husbands behave badly and whose daughters are difficult and whose friends betray them."
"Tara Road" expands Binchy's ken chronologically as well. Previous work stuck to the '50s and '60s, when the author herself was coming of age. But Ria and Marilyn are more modern women, calculating property values rather than fabric yards. That, she says, is the journalist in her dragging her out of the past.
Ireland is a much more confident nation now, she says, pleased in a motherly sort of way.
"I can't tell you how different it is from when I was growing up in the '50s." she says. "It's startlingly different. Young people go away and come back in a year with good jobs, good salaries and stay, and this is marvelous. When I was young you went away, you were an emigrant and we sang songs about you.