The support of a small community had its good side and its wearying side. Nobody could be offended, nobody could be ignored. And it didn’t have the advantage of taking their mind off things. Everyone was talking about the same thing. How to get Kate Ryan cured and back in their midst.
Maeve Binchy, Firefly Summer
Deep in the dark of mid-December, searching for a compelling story on my shelves, I find myself drawn to–drawn INTO–Maeve Binchy’s Firefly Summer. I’m not sure why. It might even be a book I’ve read before.
But it envelopes me, this story; the Ryan family, loving parents John and Kate, the twins Michael and Dara, little Declan, hopeless Eddie, born for trouble. There’s Patrick O’Neill and his beautiful children, Irish Americans in the little town of Mountfern. They have come to redeem the loss of Patrick’s family, who were turned out, once long ago, by the landlords. Patrick will build a grand hotel on the ruin of the landlord’s once-grand house. And so the die is cast; the two families’ fates are intertwined.
Their story takes place in a tightly woven village-net of friends and neighbors. They are people with quirks and foibles and fatal flaws; people who’d save ya and people who’d skin ya, but the most of them are decent. At the end of the day–and at the end of Maeve Binchy’s books–I am quite convinced that there’s goodness to be found in almost everyone.
At the end of her books, I feel like I’m leaving a warm and evolving company of true hearts.
And that, of course, is why the book appeals so much at this time of year–a time when family and community seem even more essential than ever.
Some writers create a believable community in their fiction. Some others not only create that community, but they make their readers feel like they are part of that, themselves.
The first time I heard this articulated was in a college American literature class. We were reading Little Women, and Dr. Warner pointed out that, by including the newspapers the girls wrote, Alcott drew us into the company (Was it the Pickwick Society? I go to search out the book, but it’s disappeared from my shelf) the sisters had created. We see their secret papers; we know their meeting places; we’re the fifth person, the necessary member who sees and absorbs. We become more than a reader; we engage with the people of the book.
It’s why, I think, Little Women still intrigues almost 150 years later; it’s why girls still identify with Jo or Meg or Amy; still mourn over little Beth. Under the veneer of sanctimony is a community Alcott created, a community only complete when the reader joins in.
I discovered Binchy’s books in the early 1980’s; it was a lonely time–an early marriage shattering. No wonder the warmth and community appealed. Reading the books was diving into a revivifying pool; I’d sometimes stay up all night to finish. The quirkiness of the people, and the kindness of some of them, held me tight at a time when I was feeling untethered.
I read Maeve Binchy’s books as soon as they appeared on library shelves–or, if there was a waiting list, I sometimes splurged my meager disposable cash and bought them. I shared them with my niece, who shared them with her mother. They tickled the Irish in us. They stirred that part of us that longed to create and sustain a warm and meaningful home.
Binchy herself had a wonderful story; a journalist for the Irish Times, based in London, she had her own special love affair with Gordon Snell, her own avid readership, and a glamorous life covering royal weddings and other wonderful things. And then she moved back to Dublin and turned her hand to fiction, and her name became a household word.
Are her books great literature? Probably not, but they comfort and commune. Is there anything wrong with that?
There are other women writers who write ‘community’ books–books that make you, the reader, a member. Sandra Dallas’s The Persian Pickle Club is one that draws me in but holds me back–I’m an outside member of the warm circle, but only the women who were there when it happened are allowed to know the very core of the facts.
Jan Karon creates that enfolding community in Mitford, with its wacky and lovable characters.
Madeleine L’Engle showed me the family I wished I could create–with a gifted intellectual mother, a thinking mob of individuals who were her children, and a thoughtful, strong, and gentle father. I was so happy to meet the Austins, to be sheltered from the storm with the Murry family.
Elizabeth Goudge created the Elliott family, split down the middle–the beauties and the stolid ones–and which, pray tell, was I? (I answered differently at different times.)
This candle time of year, when we are run ragged with work and preparations, when we are juggling the expectations of others with, maybe, some unrealistic ones of our own, it is nice to sink into a book where people stumble, err, and fall, but help each other up. Families celebrate and mourn together; villages fill in the empty gaps. People bumble and annoy, but they truly care.
There is always, here, a human safety net.
That’s a nice thought to play with in these dark months, when I leave for work before the sun is fully out and head home when dark has already fallen. It’s a careworn shot of candlelight in the uncertain gloom of winter. Tomorrow, I will start a weighty book, a book about the origins of human belief in God–but tonight, I’m taking Firefly Summer and snuggling in my bed to read.
Happy reading, my friends.