Maeve Binchy, popular Irish novelist, dies at 72

July 31, 2012

Maeve Binchy, whose charming novels exploring the foibles, humor and drama of life in her native Ireland made her a best-selling international author and a beloved figure in her homeland, died July 30 at a Dublin hospital. She was 72.

Reports from the Irish media and government said she had an unspecified “brief illness.” In recent years, she had struggled with heart ailments and severe arthritis.

After working as a teacher and newspaper columnist, Ms. Binchy was in her 40s when she published her first novel, “Light a Penny Candle,” in 1982. The book earned a large advance that saved Ms. Binchy and her husband from losing their house — they were two months behind on their mortgage — and vaulted her into the ranks of one of the world’s best-selling authors.

She went on to write 16 novels and several collections of short stories, most of which were built around the sometimes-awkward problems of women and families coming to terms with a changing Ireland in the second half of the 20th century.

Although highbrow critics were not always kind to Ms. Binchy, her books sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and were translated into 37 languages. Her devoted following of readers included former first lady Barbara Bush, who once called Ms. Binchy her favorite author.


Maeve Binchy, who died July 30 at 72, was in her 40s when she published her first novel, “Light a Penny Candle,” in 1982. (Myung Jung Kim/AP)

One of her novels, “Tara Road” (1998), was a selection of Oprah Winfrey’s popular television book club and was made into a film starring Andie MacDowell and Olivia Williams in 2005.

If Ms. Binchy wasn’t widely considered an innovative novelist, she was regarded as a spellbinding storyteller who had a gift for creating characters with universal appeal. Although some of her later fiction was set in modern times, many of Ms. Binchy’s epic-scale novels — several with recurring characters — were set in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Catholic Church and rural mores exerted a strong influence on Irish life.

In “Tara Road,” Ms. Binchy describes the fitful attempts of a mother, Nora Johnson, to advise her young daughters about the treacherous world of men.

“Not too much traveling,” she warned.

“Nora Johnson thought that men might regard travel as fast,” Ms. Binchy wrote. “Men preferred to marry safer, calmer women. Women who didn’t go gallivanting too much. It was only sensible to have advance information about men, Nora Johnson told her daughters. This way you could go armed into the struggle.”

In a 2002 review on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” critic and Georgetown University professor Maureen Corrigan described Ms. Binchy’s fiction as “an abiding, guilty pleasure.”

“Maybe it’s because Binchy so generously answers that enduring yearning for a good story,” Corrigan continued, “that I’ve critically diminished her for reducing me, a certified professor of literature, back to a rapt child.”

Six feet tall, rather stout and garrulous, Ms. Binchy spoke in a rapid Dublin brogue and delighted in meeting her readers. She noted that characters in her books often had repressed sexual urges, but — true to the Irish customs of her youth — she chose not to depict those longings in any explicit way.

When her novel “Circle of Friends” (later the basis of a film starring Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell) was published in 1990, Ms. Binchy said an editor commented, “This book is all about sex, and yet nobody gets any.”

“That’s the biggest compliment he could pay me because that is the way we were,” Ms. Binchy told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. “We were obsessed by sex because it was so forbidden.”

She described the real-world appeal of her characters by noting that no one in her books ever received a beauty makeover.

“Women who start out as ugly ducklings don’t become beautiful swans,” she said in 1998. “What they mainly become is confident ducks. They take charge of their lives.”

Maeve Binchy was born May 28, 1940, in Dublin and grew up in Dalkey, 10 miles south of the Irish capital. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a nurse.

After graduating from University College Dublin, Ms. Binchy taught French, Latin and history for eight years in Dublin. She traveled during the summers and lived on a kibbutz in Israel. Her father arranged to have one of her letters from Israel published in a newspaper, thus launching her on a new career as a journalist.

She was an editor and columnist for the Irish Times in Dublin and London for more than 20 years, often interviewing other best-selling writers. In 1977, she married journalist and children’s book author Gordon Snell. They had homes in London and Dalkey. Besides her husband, survivors include a brother and a sister.

Ms. Binchy wrote plays and short stories and published two collections of her journalism before she attempted her first novel, “Light a Penny Candle,” about the friendship of two girls as they grow into adulthood. The book was an immense popular success when it came out in 1982.

A new novel arrived roughly every two years until 2000, when Ms. Binchy — increasingly afflicted by arthritis — announced that “Scarlet Feather” would be her final book. But she merely gave up going on book tours and continued to write as feverishly as before. She even used her medical problems as the basis for a novel set largely in hospitals (“Heart and Soul,” 2009).

Her 16th novel, “Minding Frankie” — about an alcoholic father’s efforts to care for an infant daughter — came out in 2010. Another novel, “A Week in Winter,” is scheduled for release later this year.

Ms. Binchy admitted that she loved to overhear conversations and said that she never ran out of subjects to write about because there was no end to the constant parade of human triumph, folly and sorrow.

“Nobody is ordinary if you know where to look,” she told the Irish Voice newspaper in 2007. “We are all the heroes and heroines of our own lives. Our love stories are amazingly romantic, our losses and betrayals and disappointments are gigantic in our own minds.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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