I read my first “Maeve” in the eighties when I was only twelve years old. And even though I have an MA in English Lit and have read some of the best literature ever written, I still count ‘Light a Penny Candle’ as one of my favourite books ever. There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that it is Maeve Binchy’s finest and most well-written novel. I have read every single book she’s ever written – there’s a certain and special satisfaction that comes only from being able to say that I have read ALL of a person’s books.
So, as each new “Maeve” was published, I read and for the most part enjoyed them all. Some were definitely better than others and the adage “the earlier the book, the better the book” is good way to look at her work. What my friends, family and fellow Maeve fans all noticed as the years passed, was the each book and each set of new characters became less and less unique. I began to call each new novel her latest “Copy and Paste”. The settings changed, the names changed, and the general storyline changed but there was a definite air of formulaic writing. The characters all felt too familiar because we had met them before – except with other names, in other books.
A Week in Winter, Binchy’s posthumously published last work, is no different. It’s certainly no opus, no masterpiece. But recent figures published this week suggest that it will be her biggest ever Christmas blockbuster and sales have increased by almost 50% on her last book, Minding Frankie.
Do all these sales mean that we have a great work of literature on our hands? No. It means that people like me (and you) who have bought and read all of Binchy’s work have been faithful and loyal readers. In my honest opinion, A Week in Winter reads like an unfinished, unedited manuscript that was rushed to the printers after Binchy’s death so it could be published and on bookstore shelves before Christmas. Both plot and characters are thin and underdeveloped. The plot makes grand leaps without storyline and characterisation, that any (not just Binchy) reader will immediately recognise as being subplots that “needed more”. When reading the book, I found myself thinking on many times that Binchy would likely, in her own rewriting and editing process, have gone back to this spot and added and detail and developed the plot. The book itself is about two thirds the size of her usual books, and there were grammar mistakes galore. Orion would have done us all a favour if they’d have had it properly edited, but I doubt that would be reflected in the sales. This book will be a seller!!
A Week in Winter is set in a country house hotel on the west coast of Ireland and tells the stories of its staff and guests. All of the usual Binchy character types are there – from the older, eccentric but successful woman; another set of twins (in fact there are several); young woman struggling with a mean mother-in-law; the one who struggles but overcomes with the help of neighbours and friends; the one with the big secret; the handsome, unattainable bachelor; the children born out of wedlock; the small-town Ireland mindset; the free spirited, big city of Dublin; and a whole host of characters and places from Scarlet Feather, Quentins, Minding Frankie, and Evening Class etc.
Buy the book. Read the book. You will be left with the same feeling of dissatisfaction that I was. Perhaps due in part because we know there will be no more Maeve Binchy books, and perhaps because we all know she was definitely past her best. I feel a tinge of disloyalty as I write this review – like I owe more to the woman who brought me one of my favourite books. I can’t fault Binchy’s optimism. Every book has a happy ending. Every book features a community of people coming together to help out family, friends and neighbours. What’s not to love about that??
Binchy has sold over 40 million books in over 30 languages. A Week in Winter is available now online and in bookstores.