When I heard of the recent death of Maeve Binchy (July 2012) I realised that, apart from seeing the film "Circle of Friends" (1990) I had not read any of her books. This is an ommission that I intend to rectify!
Discovering that this was her first novel - rejected several times by publishers, but eventually sold for the highest price ever paid for a debute novel, £52,000, in 1983 - she went on to become Ireland's most prolific writer and playwright, selling more than 40 million worldwide.
The story spans a 20 year period from 1940 to 1960, and cleverly contrasts the lifestyle of a rural Irish Catholic family with a much smaller protestant family in urban London during the war and afterwards. The plot centres on two genuine friends, Elizabeth and Aisling - as different in personality as they are in their upbringing.
Without giving away the twists and turns of the plot, I can say that it is made believable by the strong characters and natural dialogue. Like one of the other reviewers, I was an urban child in England, who spent several holidays with a Catholic family in a small town in Eire during the early 60s. The memories are still vivid, and I could hear in my mind the Irish lilt in the O'Connell's conversation. The two families are dysfunctional - held together by the love they share, and a strict moral code. Sometimes the rigidity of the social "rules" leads to ignorance and suppression of natural behaviour - this is made apparent by Aisling's ill fated marriage to the town's most elligible batchelor, and Elizabeth's parents. It feels quaint to us now, in the "liberated" 21st century, where women have more choices and people openly discuss sexual relationships.
The reason I did not give this 5 stars is because the ending is so condensed, as if she had "run out if steam" or the publishers imposed a fixed length for the novel - it left me feeling unsatisfied, like a delicious meal with no pud!