Maeve Binchy (1939-2012) was and remains one of Ireland’s most prolific ‘chicklit’ writers. A gifted storyteller, Binchy’s first published literary works were two collections of short stories: Central Line (1978) and Victoria Line (1980), and her first novel entitled Light a Penny Candle was brought out in 1982. It set the recurring theme through all her works, all of which have included tensions between rural and urban life, differences between other countries and Ireland, and the huge changes in Ireland since the Second World War and the early 21st century. In terms of her prose, Binchy has always been lauded for her incredibly believable and witty dialogue: apparently she spent a lot of time on public transport listening into other people’s conversations and noting down particular turns of phrase.
In her 1992 novel Evening Class, Binchy’s dialogue provides insight into the various characters and their individual situations. Aidan Dunne is a Latin teacher hoping to be promoted to school principal, but things are not looking very positive for him at the start of the book: his marriage is in a rut, his daughters are grown and he really doesn’t know what if he will do if he doesn’t get that promotion. Nora O’Donoghue is a middle-aged woman who has spent half her live in Sicily near her married lover, and must return to Ireland after he dies suddenly. She has no assets other than her flawless Italian, beautiful embroidery skills and an ability to explain clearly and calmly, and compared to her peers seems very unconventional. Their paths cross because Aidan needs an Italian teacher for evening classes, and Nora needs a job.
The story is augmented by a secondary cast of characters: Tony, Aidan’s dynamic colleague who may or may not be a professional rival; Bill, who wants to get ahead at work; his girlfriend Lizzie, who needs to grow up; Lou, who wants to break free from the world of petty crime; Barry, who desperately wants to help his suicidal mother; Fiona, who takes control and breaks up a damaging extramarital affair; Connie, who joins the class simply to be close to a lost love; Laddy, who wants to be able to communicate with his Italian hosts; and Kathy, who learns a shocking personal truth by accident.
As the story unfolds and the evening class develops, we become more closely acquainted with the various characters involved and their particular dilemmas. The climax of the book is when the group of students, their partners, and Aidan and Nora go a trip to Italy. There, Aidan is forced to confront an unhappy truth about his marriage, Nora is revisited by ghosts of her past in Sicily, Connie receives sinister messages delivered to their hotel, and poor Laddy completely misinterprets a message for Connie and has to be rescued from a potentially awkward situation. But it all turns out well in the end.
The beauty of any Maeve Binchy novel is how friendships are formed and strengthened through dealing with obstacles and difficult situations. The stories of the various characters intermingle, and are told with great humour and warmth, and even the villain in any situation is given a reprieve and allowed to be human. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable and friendly read, and once you get into it, it’s very difficult to put the book down.