People always remember the ‘firsts’ in their lives. We talk about our first day of school, first date, first kiss. We reminisce about our first car, our first “real” job. We blush when we revisit the freshness of first love, and lower our eyes when we confess to our best girlfriends that we’ve found our first grey hairs.
For readers and writers, though, there’s another set of firsts. We share our first books (A Child’s Garden of Verses), we treasure our first library cards (I still have my card from the tiny public library in Georgetown, Colorado, issued to my gap-toothed, seven-year-old self in 1977 by a hippie librarian named John). We talk about our first Hemingway (I started with essays and non-fiction – A Moveable Feast), our first Fitzgerald (Tender is the Night). If we have a geeky bent, we can quote passages from our first science fiction reads (A Wrinkle in Time), and if we love a mystery we have a first whodunnit (Nancy Drew novels, in my case – I don’t remember which one, but probably the first, because I read them in order).
For me, an important literary “first” is my first Binchy. I’m referring, of course, to Maeve Binchy, who was actually Maeve Binchy Snell in her non-writing life. We know her, now, as the wildly successful, incredibly popular of Irish novels. Her work is so different from any other writer’s – contemporary, but with a vintage feel; cozy but with real edges, not rounded corners – that to me she is her own genre, spanning “women’s fiction” and “contemporary fiction,” but extending beyond both. Her work was available in the traditional paperback size (albeit twice as thick), and in trade paperback, and hardcover, so I suppose you could say she was “mainstream,” but then she’d insert a turn of phrase so specifically Irish, Dubliner, BINCHY, that she set herself apart.
My first Binchy was Light a Penny Candle, which was also her first – or at least, her first published novel.(She’d written short stories and had a journalism career as well.) Various sources list the original publication date as either 1982 or 1983 but my first reading of it wasn’t in its final form. Instead, it was a bit at a time, once a month, in early-eighties issues of my mother’s subscription to Redbook. I remember that I’d never been exposed to names like “Aisling” before (“…which isn’t “Aisling” at all,” Binchy’s lead character wrote home to her parents, “but sounds more like ASH-LEEN.”) I wasn’t familiar with the Catholic tradition of lighting a candle in church, and I had never read a story where everyone was so earthy and natural and undeniably REAL.
But that was the thing about Binchy’s characters. None of them were entirely good or entirely bad. Most of them weren’t Hollywood pretty. Instead, they were conflicted, struggling, human people with stories that were never outside the realm of possibility for non-fictional people. They spoke in Irish slang, they had unprotected sex (and dealt with all sorts of consequences), they fell in love, bought and sold businesses, suffered both joy and loss, and basically gave us – or at least gave this American child of the ’70s – a glimpse into a life on the other side of the Atlantic, and a bit further north than most of the books I’d read as a child and young adult.
Years after that Redbook serialization, long after I’d become a fan of more contemporary work (Anne Rice, Douglas Adams, Anne McCaffrey, Dick Francis, Rex Stout (okay, not so much contemporary there)), I saw the paperback of Light a Penny Candle on a spinning rack at the bookstore, and asked my mother to buy it for me. She did, and I devoured it, enjoying bits of the story I’d missed before, and being lulled into a mood that could only be soothed with strong cups of Irish Breakfast tea and freshly peeled oranges, enjoyed at night after my parents had gone to bed.
After that rediscovery, I began reading Maeve Binchy’s books as they were published. My mother and I would visit the library together every week, and share our stacks of new fiction. Later, I would watch the notices at Barnes and Nobel, and after that, I would wishlist her work on Amazon. I noticed – and liked – that as the author aged, her characters did, as well. Her most recent works have a lot more “mature” characters, and fewer teens and twenty-somethings, as if “write what you know” was more than good advice for her. I also liked that her novels all inhabited the same version of Dublin. Even if the characters and stories weren’t connected, a restaurant featured in one novel would be mentioned three books later. (It is, in fact, because of Maeve Binchy’s attention to this sort of detail that Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novels annoy me. They’re enjoyable stories, but they’re not all in the same Nantucket.)
There are celebrities whose deaths we mark with an acknowledgement, but unless we knew them, there’s no real connection. For me, having literally grown up reading her work, Maeve Binchy’s death was as real, and as startling, as if I had known her personally, all the more since – literally the day before – I had been looking to see if she had a new novel coming out this year.
Maeve Binchy died on July 30th in her beloved Dublin, but her books will live on, in print, and in my heart.