There’s something bittersweet about reading a new book by a favorite author who has just died. It’s a bit like savoring the last cookie from a recipe no one knows how to make anymore — like Joey Tribbiani gobbling the last half-cookie from Phoebe’s grandmother’s fire-destroyed recipe.
Except I’m not going to find a new Maeve Binchy book on the back of a Nestle chocolate chip packet anytime soon.
I’ve held off buying A Week in Winter, the last book Binchy ever wrote before she died, for as long as I could (it was not very long). I started reading it yesterday night and my Kindle tells me I’m about 20 percent done. And the funny thing is, as I was reading it, I kept expecting something different, something that would hint at the fact that this was a posthumous novel, written at a time when Binchy was already very sick.
But it wasn’t. It was the same warm, reassuring tone with which she has written all her books. They were the same familiar topics that I love and never get tired of. No agonizing Coelho or Murakami-style existentialist issues here, but plain, ordinary, human problems and tragedies. Affairs, surprise pregnancies, marriages, divorce, friendship, family, betrayal, hope, love — let’s face it, these are the ordinary building blocks of most people’s lives.
I was glad and yet at the same time slightly disappointed. Not because the book isn’t good, but because it’s the last Maeve Binchy book that I will ever read for the first time. I guess a part of me expects the experience to be more momentous than it is. It’s like how goodbyes are always so charged with significance when the truth is, it’s not goodbye that matters but all the in-between moments before goodbye.
I’ve loved Maeve Binchy since I was 14 years old and staying with my aunt in her house in Guangzhou, casting about for a book to read and finally finding a yellowed paperback copy of Circle of Friends in her third-floor attic.
“If you’re going to get into reading Maeve Bincy, that’s the book to start with,” she told me when she saw me carrying it down to the living room.
I know that Binchy isn’t regarded as a ‘literary’ author, and she herself said, “I do realize that I am a popular writer that people buy to take on vacation.” And yes, I’ve read Maeve Binchy while sitting beach-side on a holiday, but I’ve also read her in the throes of a particularly painful break-up. I read and took comfort from her stories all through the tumultous years of adolescence. I read her when the things she wrote about became slightly more relevant to my life, once I graduated college and began facing the question of how to be and how to live, as a human being, as a writer, as a woman.
And I’ve come to realize that what I love about the Maeve Binchy world, what weaves a spell of well-being and comfort around me when I read her, is that her characters are survivors.
I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks. – Maeve Binchy
In Binchy’s world, things don’t always end happily. Characters don’t always get what they want. But things tend to work out for the best, which is different from ending happily or getting what you want. Ria Lynch never gets her cheating husband back. Jack and Benny break up. Aisling and Elizabeth survive failed marriages and abusive husbands to be left standing at the end of the novel, together, with a baby between them.
Reading Maeve Binchy gives me hope that you can survive life’s dissapointments and tragedies, and become stronger for them. That where you start is not necessarily where you will end up. And that’s a good thing, especially if where you’re starting from is a place of almost unbearable pain.
On a side (and ending) note, in case anyone is actually reading this, I began this blog as a way of tempting myself back to writing. Lately, with the pressure to get together a presentable portfolio for MFA applications, a growing sense that I should be writing more, harder, deeper, immersing myself in the writing and publishing world, networking (quelle horreur!), writing has begun to look a lot like — well, work. And the only way to ever get me to do work has always been to dupe me into believing it isn’t actually work.
So this is me, duping myself. Proferring a little nibble of cheese to get my writer-rat back into the trap. Maybe here, in this writing and reading journal, where no one knows me and no one reads me, I can finally rediscover the fun in writing.
Anyway, to end this somewhat rambling first post about one of my favorite authors, a quote from one of my favorite movies:
Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life. Well, valuable, but small. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So goodnight, dear void. — You’ve Got Mail