Currently Reading: Circle of Friends

Circle of FriendsClodagh fiddled and draped and pinned.

“Put your shoulders back, Benny,” she ordered. “Stick your chest out.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I look like the prow of a ship,” said Benny in alarm.

“I know. Isn’t it great?”

“Fellows love the prows of ships,” Eve said. “They’re always saying it.”

“Shut up, Eve Malone. I’ll stick the scissors in you.”

“You will not. Those are my expensive pinking shears. Now, isn’t that something?” Clodagh looked pleased.

Even in its rough and ready state they could see what she had in mind for Benny. And it looked very good indeed.

Author: Maeve Binchy

Synopsis: Mary Bernadette “Benny” Hogan has been best friends with Eve Malone since they were ten, despite being little alike: Benny is tall, stocky, gentle, the only daughter of loving but confining parents; Eve is small and wiry and ferocious and was raised by nuns after her parents' mysterious deaths.

When they leave the little town of Knockglen for university at Dublin, they’re immediately swept up into a social life that includes class clown Aidan Lynch, good-looking charmer Jack Foley, and stunning, calculating Nan Mahon. The boys and Nan will wreak havoc for Benny and Eve, testing and proving their friendship.

Notes: My friend Elizabeth bought this book for me, saying that Binchy’s writing is peaceful, relaxing and enjoyable to read. It is that. But I also had to stay up reading it till three A.M. in desperate suspense.

It wasn’t due to relentless pacing or swift-moving prose. Binchy’s writing career apparently began before the modern outcry against things like the passive verb and the third person omniscient voice. Her brief sentences and snappy dialogue generally kept the scenes from dragging, though, and I appreciated the easygoing nature of the tale.

The characters delighted me. Taking the secondary cast for now, I particularly loved Mother Francis, Kit Hegarty, Heather, Aidan, Clodagh and Fonsie. I wound up liking Bill a good bit, too. He could be a touch tactless, but he seemed like a solid, good-natured guy. I rather wish we’d gotten more of him.

Benny is an incredibly sympathetic protagonist. Most women know the feeling of having some physical flaw that we fear will turn men away, and when that flaw is noticeable enough to be pointed out again and again and again by everyone, it turns to torment. Benny’s humor and grace throughout make her lovable, someone I couldn't help wanting to be like.

Eve is just as likable in her own way, primarily for her intense loyalty and sharp wit. She and Aidan share quite a few hilarious little dialogues; they and Clodagh and Fonsie provide much of the comedy in the story. And I’ve got to admit, I’ve made numerous re-reads of the scene where Eve confronts Nan, just for the satisfaction of her fierce defense of her friend and her home. Even though part of that defense was rather indefensible.

The friendship between Eve and Benny carries the tale, beneath the numerous perspectives and the sweet but doomed romance. Yeah, I suppose that’s a little spoilerific. But that “sweet but doomed” bit is exactly why I stayed up till three—it was all so tender, and I really wanted it to work out, but I had myself braced for an explosion.

I didn’t brace hard enough.

The ending itself was beautiful and admirable and exactly what it should have been, if you’ll grant me the nitpicky writerly whim of disliking the last two lines as used together. I knew just why Binchy ended it the way she did, and the reasonable half of me cheers.

Now, spoiler.

The unreasonable half of me—the half that took three watches each through the movies Sabrina and While You Were Sleeping to accept that the setup romances were not the payoff romances—had a hard time with it. When a heroine falls in love with someone who turns out to be a rake, there’s admittedly no good way to resolve that. Rakes are notoriously difficult to reform; it’s a case of powerful addiction. But like any fool girl, I always hope that just once, the one in this or that story will change.

And Jack Foley didn't strike me quite as a classic rake. At least, not at first. Binchy does an exceptional job at making the reader care about nearly every character, even the weak ones, and I really, really wanted to love the young charmer. Jack is handsome, lighthearted, very capable of being sweet, and falls in love with Benny for reals. He’s not messing around. Until, of course, he is. Benny can’t be there whenever he wants her, won’t go all the way in the back of the car, and along comes the temptress, and he’s toast.

But Nan played Jack, too. He deserved nearly everything he got, but a part of me still hopes he learned his lesson and proved reformable.

This book has been made into a movie—Minnie Driver’s first lead role, I believe, and with improvements enough to Jack’s character to pull off a classic happy ending. Both of which interest me in watching it; I am rather fond of happy endings and Minnie Driver. I like Chris O’Donnell, who plays Jack, too. On the other hand, the trailer makes it sound as if the movie’s theme is more “Catholic girls and sex” than friendship, which is unfortunate. Binchy does give an interesting and nuanced depiction of the former, but it’s a subservient theme and anyway, I’m not sure I trust the film industry to treat it quite so fairly.

Recommendation: It’s an ideal autumnal read—thought-provoking, funny and bittersweet, and soothing. Go for it.


  1. I don't have much to say on the book itself as I probably wouldn't ever read it. No, I just wanted to say, "The passive voice rocks in my opinion!" Always have loved it. It's the voice of Scripture, in a sense, at least in our relation to God & salvation. :)

  2. This book sounds pretty awesome to me, and I would also like to put in a good word for the passive voice and omniscient third-person narrators.

  3. . . . though for maximum Biblicality you'd really want an omniscient second-person narrator. . . ok, am I procrastinating now? The answer is yes.

  4. Yeah, the passive voice gets unfair treatment nowadays. I like it when stories move along at a pleasant, interesting-but-not-murderously-suspenseful rate. Too few of them fall in that category anymore. :)

  5. ...maybe why I've always loved the book of Esther, and can never sit down to read part of it without going straight through to the end. :)


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