CIRCLE OF FRIENDS

By Maeve Binchy

Delacorte. 565 pp. $19.95

For anyone with memories of a Catholic childhood, reading one of Maeve Binchy's novels is like coming home.

Her latest book, "Circle of Friends," is the story of two girls, Benny Hogan and Eve Malone, who grow up as best friends in the small village of Knockglen, Ireland, and eventually attend University College, Dublin. Here, in the 1950s, they meet a new circle of acquaintances and find that the process of education is far more painful than they had anticipated. The toughest lessons about life are not taught in the lecture hall, and betrayal and heartbreak go along with them.

In the village, everyone knows about everyone; no secrets can be kept in Knockglen where nothing much ever happens and most people like it that way. Benny, known cruelly as Big Ben because of her size, is the overprotected daughter of doting parents; small dark Eve is an orphan brought up in the convent, fiercely loyal and so unflinchingly honest that she makes one wince.

Then there is Mother Francis, a saint if ever there was one, who sees more beyond the convent wall than most people see in front of them; the unctuous Sean Walsh, who works for Benny's father and wants to marry her; Fonsie, the teddy boy; Clodagh Pine, who wants to shake her aunt's dress shop out of the doldrums; Mossy Rooney, who courts Patsy, the Hogans' housekeeper; Birdie Mac, who runs the sweet shop; Mr. Flood, the butcher, who talks to a vision up in a tree; and Mrs. Healy, who wears corsets and runs the hotel. If you haven't been to Knockglen, by the time you finish this book you will think you have. All these people, lovingly created and real, breathed into life by Binchy's insights into the human heart, will become part of your own memories.

In Dublin the girls make a new set of sophisticated friends, including the beautiful but calculating Nan Mahon, whose advice makes them question the standards they have been taught. Of course, Eve and Benny fall in love, and all the heart-thumping thrills of innocent adolescent passion are well-rendered by the author. We've all been there but Binchy remembers the small angsts clearly.

In a gentle book like this, set in the '50s with Catholicism permeating every page, I suppose it should not be surprising that sex is handled so gingerly, although it is the deus ex machina of the story. At the convent where I grew up, in a country far from Ireland, the novice nuns were fresh out of County Wicklow or County Wexford, and even the old tartars who had spent their lives trying to teach husky Australian girls a manner or two still retained their lilting accents. But even the most worldly nuns were unable to deal with female sexuality, or indeed any bodily function. This manifested itself in many petty rules like measuring the length of our gym tunics when we knelt down, and not flushing the lavatory if a man was in the corridor. This same sense of refined repression gives this book an old-fashioned air. It is almost as though it were written in the '50s.

It is hard not to like this book, and like Binchy's previous bestsellers, "Light a Penny Candle" and "Firefly Summer," the pages unroll effortlessly one after the other. If not much really happens in the story, only the shared minutiae of uneventful lives, perhaps that is its charm. Maeve Binchy's "Circle of Friends" welcomes you in.

The reviewer is the author of the novels "In Her Own Image" and "Family Business."