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An afternoon in Ireland with friends

A Few of the Girls, short stories by Maeve Binchy

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A great collection, drawn from the breadth of Binchy’s career, that reminds you of the importance of friends and family

A Few of the Girls is the last published book by Irish best selling author Maeve Binchy, who died in 2012.  Her widower, Gordon Snell, wrote the forward of this collection, which is a collection of previously published short stories vetted by her editors and agent.

I loved some of Maeve Binchy’s earlier novels, that I read when I was young, such as Light a Penny Candle and Circle of Friends (which was made into an enjoyable film starring Minnie Driver), but over the years my interests diverged from her subjects, so I hadn’t read her in years until I ran across this book in the library.  I was pleased that despite 2, and in some cases, 3 more university degrees and decades of reading since I read my first Binchy book, I still thoroughly enjoyed these stories.  Some of them might seem very slightly dated…for example, a story about a woman who starves herself in reaction to being left by her husband, but not because they don’t ring true, but because the situation has become too commonplace in the media for the story to have their intended effects. 

If you have trouble with books set in places you haven’t seen…

When I read the books mentioned above, I was very young and hadn’t travelled internationally at all, but somehow Binchy made me feel as though I were in Ireland while at the same time, not slowing down the story with heavy-handed exposition. While I still have not made it to Ireland, I have travelled in Europe several times and also have Irish friends I met in other places. In short, I have a lot more context than I did 30 years ago, but I am happy to report that I still find Binchy’s writing engaging. She is also beloved in Ireland, so I feel pretty confident that she is engaging for Irish people as well!

The disappointing thing about this collection is the lack of context with which these stories are presented in terms of Binchy’s body of work. In a brief forward, Snell informs us that these stories are previously published in magazines and some were written for charity, but nowhere in the edition that I read are there any indications of where or when the stories were originally written or published.  That’s strange to me, because I thought at least some information is required when stories are reprinted, but apparently not.  Instead, the stories are grouped thematically, which is fine…it’s just unsettling to read stories one after the other that were written decades apart, and honestly, I was interested to know when these stories were written, and where, and why, if that is known (for example, for specific charities).

When you should read these stories…

The stories themselves are perfect for a relaxing, rainy afternoon or for when your reading time is disjointed (so you might not be able to remember what you read previously).  Binchy knew how to make you care about the characters, give you something to reflect on or think about, and pack an emotional punch all in a few pages.

After you read these stories, take a minute to read her biography online: even from a brief one, you will get an idea of some of her personal experiences that informed her plots.

Stories from A Few of the Girls that you don’t want to miss:

“Chalk and Cheese”:

You know the movie Beaches and the song “The Wind Beneath My Wings”? I loved both when they came out, but now they make me want to gag; they are so cheesy (no pun intended).  Well, this is another story about a seemingly imbalanced friendship. A story that shows what’s really going on, in a good way.

“Audrey”:

I usually don’t read animal stories, but this one, narrated by a cat, is charming and also made me have a slight, very slight, appreciation for cats in general. 

“Kiss Me, Kate”:

This story, about a relationship between a Londoner and a Dubliner, may well be based on some of Binchy’s personal experiences as that is exactly what she was.  It seems that Binchy also drew on her experience as a travel writer to show us her “backyard”, i.e. Dublin. 

If you are a Gen-Xer like me, this sentence, from page 101, will make you want to get on a plane: “Kate’s twelve-year-old niece had taken him on the tour of the places where The Commitments had been filmed, and out to South Dublin, no to see the fishing harbors and eat in the smart restaurants but to take his camera and photograph where Bono lived, and Chris de Burgh and Def Leppard.” Next sentence: “Paul said his sister would die when she knew he had seen the places, she would probably be over on the next plane”  Right?  Us too.

“Be Prepared”:

I just had to like this one about an annoying aunt/sister who was an early widow travel freak.  Because that’s who I am.  I can hear my extended family collectively groaning from here because this story only serves to encourage me. 😉

“A Result”:

To be read when the teenager brings home someone you can’t stand.

PS Facts about Ireland to Keep in Mind when you read Maeve Binchy
  1. Ireland is an island next to the island of Great Britain.
  2. The homelands the nations of Wales, Scotland, and England is the island of Great Britain.
  3. Ireland is a separate island.
  4. The island of Ireland is the traditional homeland of all the Irish, but now they live in two different states:
    1. The Republic of Ireland: mostly Roman Catholic, an independent state that was once part of the United Kingdom, includes Dublin
    2. Northern Ireland: mostly Protestant (Christian but not Catholic or Orthodox), part of the United Kingdom, includes Belfast
  5. The United Kingdom currently consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, along with some smaller islands.
  6. These four nations function within the United Kingdom something like the states do in the U.S….maybe more like the U.S. territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico…but not exactly the same as either. The rules for the different nations are different, and they change, because the different groups feel differently about their relationship to the U.K. and England.
  7. The Welsh, Scots, and Irish all have their own languages and were once separate kingdoms.
  8. All of these nations have long and violent histories with each other, but the longest, most violent, and most oppressive is the United Kingdom’s occupation of Ireland, which was exacerbated by religious difference as thanks to Henry the Eighth’s desire to divorce his wife and left the Catholic church, taking England, and later the rest of the U.K., with him. So it’s really, really bad to get Irish, English, and British confused.
    1. English people are British, as are Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish, plus A LOT of other nationalities.
    2. British people can be English, Scot, Welsh, or Northern Irish, or A LOT of other nationalities.
    3. A person who identifies as Scot, Welsh, or Northern Irish, or Irish, is NOT English.
  9. There is also a thing called being Celtic. Scots*, Welsh, all Irish, plus some other areas of the United Kingdom (especially Cornwall) and France are the homelands of the ancient Celt countries and languages. Ancestral English are NOT Celts.
  10. As if all of this weren’t enough fun, there are also the British Commonwealth countries. Almost all of the former British colonies, EXCEPT the UNITED STATES, are part of the Commonwealth, which might give citizens of all of those countries certain rights as well (it changes, but many can apply for British citizenship).

Try to keep all of this straight in your head as much as you can, but if you screw up, keep in mind that all of these nationalities love a good joke, so if you are hanging out with them and screw up, make a joke, try to laugh at yourself, and you will probably be able to get a free drink out of it. Or buy them one. 😉 If you’re just reading, luckily no one will know.

*If you call the Scots the Scotch, buying a drink is a good idea. Scotch is the liquor, Scots are the people although you don’t have to actually buy them Scotch.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!

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