"Circle of Friends" by Maeve Binchy

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It’s easy to see why Maeve Binchy sells books by the container-load. She features humor, believable motivation and action, and true insights into the human character. But mostly, of course, her characters are so sympathetic that readers come to love them. I assume that’s the case with her other best-sellers -I have to, because Circle of Friends is my only exposure to Ms. Binchy’s work, and is likely to remain so.

Circle of Friends recounts the trials and triumphs of Mary Bernadette (“Benny”) Hogan, and her best friend in life, Eve Malone. The two girls live near Dublin in 1957 and go through everything together – a strict Catholic upbringing setting the tone throughout. The narrative focuses very exactly on their last year of high school and first year of university. Conversations cover the gambit, and are uniformly well executed – witty, true to life, and quite character-specific. Benny’s relationship with her handsome and affable boyfriend cannot quite survive his indiscretions and bad decisions. However, the author very carefully maintains a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Jack the boyfriend – there are no cardboard cutouts among the main characters, certainly. Minor ones, too, show understandable contours in personality and motivation.

We witness a great deal of detail about these young women and men; episodes parade by in their proper order, evoking the proper amount of anticipation, or catharsis, or vindication, or empathy … we await resolution on a series of issues and at length it comes.
As I said, these characters are highly sympathetic. We want for them the best possible outcomes, but while plenty seems to happen in the quotidian realm, important issues become resolved at a glacial pace. We anticipate them early on and wait and wait, and finally something surprising happens.

This author aims to treat us to two young women’s coming of age – well, maybe three – and she realizes this goal, or most of it. It’s the lack of ambition that prevents this book from having a higher score. Ms. Binchy’s readers obviously love her characters, and with good reason, but I need more from my time spent reading.
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