Duck Boots, and a Literary Love

It was a cold, slushy January morning, and my duck boots squeaked their way up the steps of Gasson Hall to a classroom with stained glass windows. Taking stock of the cast of characters in the room, I chose a seat next to a familiar cableknit sweater and friendly smile. The professor bustled in, a tiny figure with a booming voice and just the faintest brogue. As she shrugged out of a plaid scarf and parka she called out “Welcome to Modern Irish Fiction! I hope this room is not filled with a wholelotof Maeve Binchy fans!”

A smart shopper for college courses, I always previewed the books on the corresponding shelves in the bookstore before I registered for a class. If the reading list looked interesting, that was a good sign for me. So I knew that the work was going to be difficult; James Joyce and Kate O’Brien are not light reads. Still, I bristled at this slam of a familiar, bestselling author.

It did turn out to be a satisfactory class, shaping me as a reader in many ways. But I do love Maeve Binchy. She may have been more of an airport author than a truly literary one, but surely there is a place in the canon for escapism, the funny moments of life, tales of lifelong friendship and human kindnesses. Maeve’s characters, both new and recurring, as well as the character of Ireland itself are richly detailed, coming to life on the page and taking up residence in my heart. And I am not alone: Maeve’s husband Gordon Snell has commented that the Irish Tourist Board answers many questions about fictitious places that cannot be visited by her fans. Her narratives are so relatable that we can’t help but want to climb into the pages and live happily ever after.

Maeve Binchy is one of a few authors who helped me bridge the gap between young adult and “grown up” reading. I first read Circle of Friends as a high school senior in 1994, eagerly anticipating the upcoming film starring Minnie Driver and my heartthrob, Chris O’Donnell (BC ’92). Although I matriculated at his alma mater, I did eventually get over Chris. To Maeve I have remained faithful. The 2012 publication of A Week in Winter marked my 18th year of reading her novels and short stories as well as the year of her death. Maeve saw me through hospital stays, long flights, late nights nursing babies, and rainy Sunday afternoons.

On a recent trip to a local bookstore I scanned the new releases table and stopped cold. Chestnut Street. Maeve Binchy. Hardcover. It was as if an old flame walked into my birthday party and the needle scratched across a record playing. Could it be? But how? I approached the book with great caution. If completed by a ghostwriter, I would not scan even one page. I touched the cover, looked inside, and breathed a sigh of relief and joy. It was a treasure trove of previously unpublished short stories written over the course of many years, thoughtfully chosen for a new collection.

Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I’ll never get another chance to have a chat with my beloved Gram in this life, but the promise of this book felt like that kind of gift: several hundred pages of new stories, funny people to meet and problems that can be solved by a fresh coat of paint, a confidence kept, or a random act of kindness. Contrary to the opinion of my well-meaning professor of Modern Irish Fiction, I’d gladly find myself in a room filled with Maeve Binchy fans. Hearts would be mended, relationships sorted out, and courage found one more time. Since I can find her shelf in the library blindfolded, at least I can always visit her there. I might wear my duck boots to the library, which went out of fashion and are oddly back “in” again. For me, Maeve never left.

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