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The Importance of Reading Maeve by Sandra Harris

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a few of the girls

Sandra Harris

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Did you ever see the episode of THE SIMPSONS in which Homer decides to become an inventor, but he constantly bemoans the fact that he has a long way to go to catch up to Thomas Edison? Maeve Binchy is kind of my Thomas Edison, if you get me.

If, when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil (not any time soon, please, God!), I have written even half the number of books Maeve wrote in her lifetime, and if I’m spoken of with even half of the affection and fondness the Irish people have for Maeve Binchy and her truly impressive output of writings, then I’ll consider myself privileged.

My own debut romantic fiction book, THIRTEEN STOPS, has been very kindly compared to the writings of Maeve Binchy by Aine Toner of WOMAN’S WAY magazine. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment. I was bloody thrilled with it, lol.

A beginner writer of women’s fiction/romantic fiction/chick-lit couldn’t do herself a bigger favour than reading all of Maeve’s books, studying the simple plots and the natural-sounding dialogue and the easy, true-to-life way in which the characters interact with each other.

Maeve was a natural writer, a writer to whom the words came as easy as breathing. She didn’t tie herself up in knots with complicated plots. Her characters simply do the things we regular folks do every day, and they make mistakes more often than they get it right, just like in real life.

She also wrote a hell of a lot. That’s the main way a writer improves, writing as much as she can, every day if possible, but certainly at least four or five days out of seven. Everything you write is good practice, and no practice goes to waste.

Maeve wrote nearly thirty books in all, mostly fiction with some non-fiction, and when she passed away in 2012, she was still at the top of her game. Just think of the eight or so years since she passed. If she’d lived, she almost certainly would have penned another eight books during this time, and we’d have had another one to look forward to this coming Christmas as well.

Okay, so some of her settings were a little old-fashioned, but that was just down to the era she grew up in. Girls still went to secretarial college when they left school (do these even exist any more? Does anyone learn typing and shorthand any more?), and they often moved over to London from Ireland as well to look for work, living in flats with other women like themselves and having affairs with the boss and getting ‘into trouble,’ you know the kind of ‘trouble’ I mean…!

The plots were universal and timeless, though. She wrote extensively and knowledgeably about all the trials and tribulations the human heart (mostly the female one) can go through. Maeve was always at her best with this kind of plot. She did it first and, quite possibly, she did it best as well.

Women writers today still pen stories like the ones Maeve wrote, about extramarital affairs, affairs that go nowhere, affairs where one party, usually the woman, is getting so much less out of the arrangement than the other, affairs that end in disaster, affairs where everyone ends up getting hurt, instead of no-one, as originally intended. Bit optimistic, that, if you ask me! Clearly, there’s no such thing as an affair that ends well.

Women readers love to read about other women who make the same romantic mistakes as they do, and women who get hurt by exactly the same variety of (male!) louse they’ve encountered themselves. This kind of story will be eternally popular with women, because women will never get tired of reading about women like themselves in similar situations, and the decisions and choices they make (will they be different to the ones we’d have made ourselves?) and any repercussions that might ensue.

I have the hardback edition of A FEW OF THE GIRLS, a collection of Maeve’s stories that came out posthumously in 2015. It has a gorgeous wintry jacket design and raised silver snowflakes on the cover. The stories are mostly about women with decisions and choices to make regarding their home, family, career or romantic lives and, just like in real life, not all of them have happy endings and the girl doesn’t always get the guy…

I love BIG DECISIONS IN BRUSSELS. A tale of marital infidelity, it’s told from the point of view of the wife, but we get a clear picture of the mistress or the ‘bit on the side’s’ standpoint as well. The mistress is waiting for the man to tell his wife that he’s leaving her, but the man keeps putting it off. Big surprise, right? Maeve displays her incredible insight into the female psyche with the following lines from the wife’s viewpoint:

‘But then Deirdre (the mistress) would be outraged. After all, she had been urging him for months to tell his wife of their plans. Once Dan had postponed the great telling again, their relationship was bound to suffer. In New York, she would feel shabby and second best, hidden and with no status- just as she was now. Their relationship would probably wither.’

GEORGIA HALL, the opening story, warns of the dangers of comparing yourself unfavourably to other women, and how you can’t always tell which way a guy is going to jump. Will he stick with the girlfriend he loves and has a whole history with, or will he be lured away by a flash of something a bit more glittery and tinselly but almost certainly transient? The point here is that you never can tell, so you might as well just be yourself instead of jumping through hoops trying to be like someone else. CHALK AND CHEESE has a similar theme.

BELLA AND THE MARRIAGE GUIDANCE COUNSELLOR is a sad little story about a deserted wife who thinks that her erring husband will abandon his mistress if only she, the wife, loses a ton of weight. We, the readers, can see clearly how Bella is deluding herself and we want to yell advice at her, but she can’t hear us, alas…

THE CONSULTANT AUNT tells the story of a woman who commits the ultimate betrayal against the niece who relies on her heavily for advice and guidance, and DECISION MAKING AT CHRISTMAS shows us a woman who stresses about which of several invitations to spend Christmas with various friends and relatives to accept, only to discover that the secret to a really happy Christmas lies squarely in her own hands.

The titular story, A FEW OF THE GIRLS, is a sad commentary on how little the members of a group of friends actually know about each other. There’s even a charming little tale, AUDREY, about an enterprising cat who knows on what side her bread’s buttered. Told from the kitty’s viewpoint, as well, which should appeal greatly to cat lovers…!

This whole collection is a delight. It’s exactly the kind of warm-hearted, witty, wise and whimsical writing we’ve come to expect from Maeve Binchy, and it’s a gorgeously-covered addition to a collection of wonderful books that were written to be treasured forever.

By Sandra Harris. ©

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