This collection by Maeve Binchy, one of Ireland’s most popular and best-selling writers who died in 2012 at 72, is made up of pieces the author penned over many decades. These writings were always intended, as Binchy’s husband, Gordon Snell, explains in the book’s preface, to be a volume of interlocking stories centered around Dublin’s fictional Chestnut Street, its residents and families.
It’s no surprise, then, that some of these three dozen stories are more fully realized than others, while some remain closer to fragments, vignettes, or even character sketches. Chestnut Street and its varied inhabitants do link these tales loosely; some characters, for instance, crop up in others’ stories but quite often only as a passing mention.
The location itself is the main connective feature here, a residential road in Dublin’s city-center that comes across as a mini urban oasis, a sheltering space for young families as well as retirees:
“Chestnut Street was a lovely place to play because it was shaped like a horseshoe and there was a big bit of grass in the middle beside some chestnut trees. Some of the people who lived there went to great trouble to keep it looking nice. Others just sat there at night and drank lager and left the cans.”
As befits a Binchy book, this one is packed with charming takes on people’s quirks and foibles, nosy neighbors and friendly ones. Binchy eloquently exposes and explores relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, longtime and recently acquired friends.
There are tales of opportunities lost and won, of Dubliners’ self-exile in London and New York, of relationships that strengthen or falter over time, of would-be lovers waiting patiently in the wings, of kindnesses small and large. In some of the segments you catch fleeting glimpses of the beginning kernels of a story while others stand indisputably alone.
There’s canny humor, entertaining expressions of unconditional love, and a twist in the tale of “The Wrong Caption”; “Flowers From Grace” turns the tables on a a supremely organized woman during the millennial New Year; the clever, “Strangers on a Train”-style scheming of two girlfriends drives “The Women Who Righted Wrongs”; “Bucket Maguire” is heartbreaking, as is “Philip and the Flower Arrangers”; “The Builders” is downright delightful; and “The Lottery of the Birds” features a quasi-incisive woman who sees men in terms of feathered creatures: peacock, penguin, owl, eagle, emu.
What’s missing here is some of the overarching structure of Binchy’s storytelling magic to more strongly draw all of these fragments and tales together. That said, quite a few of the stories contain it in miniature, and there are plenty of instances of spot-on dialogue that capture Binchy’s characterizations honestly and humorously, reflecting an appreciation for others and an unyielding appreciation for the carnival of life.
In “Fair Exchange,” a woman “nearly sixty’’ and a 12-year-old boy decide to help each other out with computers and cooking, developing a deep mutual respect along the way: “ ‘You’re so bright,’ Ivy said wistfully. ‘Your young mind is like a sponge — you take everything in. . . ’ ‘Yours isn’t bad either,’ [Sandy] said. ‘It’s a bit deeper than mine, actually.’ ”
And in “Joyce and the Blind Date” a septuagenarian woman mentors a young, vulnerable actor in no uncertain terms: “ ‘Leave where you are, lad. . . . Get a new agent, live somewhere different. You’re only twenty-eight years of age. Don’t wait until you’re seventy before you understand how to win in this old life.’ ”
If you’re already a fan, this collection will offer some lovely tasters of Binchy’s warm writing style, but if you’re new to her it makes more sense to bask in her glow by starting with one of her 17 novels, from “Light a Penny Candle’’ and “Circle of Friends’’ to “Scarlet Feather’’ and “Tara Road.’’
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic.