Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Light a Penny Candle

1982, 1989 Dell edition
Maeve Binchy
Light a Penny Candle
Original price $6.50, purchase price $1.98
Worn paperback

Unlike Dublin 4 but like some of the later novels, this is set in the past, in this case 1940 to 1960, mostly in London, England and Kilgarret, Ireland.  Binchy also contrasts Protestantism and Catholicism, the title referring to an Irish and/or Catholic custom.  During World War II, ten-year-old Elizabeth White goes to stay with the family of her mother's old classmate, Eileen O'Connor, since Ireland is not at war.  Eileen's daughter  Aisling is the same age as Elizabeth but much more outgoing.  We see the girls through awkward adolescences, unhappy relationships (particularly with Johnny, a man who takes both their virginities, years apart), and fairly successful careers, Elizabeth especially.

My two biggest problems with this novel are with the character of Eileen and the melodramatic ending.  Eileen is meant to be admirable, but I find it hard to forgive her for not accepting that the alcoholism and impotence of Tony, Aisling's husband, are grounds for leaving him.  Even when he hits Aisling, Eileen thinks she should forgive Tony.  OK, maybe Aisling can't get a divorce because it's against their faith, and Irish law, but why can't Eileen accept their separation?

As for the ending, it's foreshadowed in the prologue but comes almost out of nowhere.  Elizabeth's nice if insecure husband Henry first becomes a whinger like her father, and then becomes paranoid, and then gets drunk and decides to go have sex with Aisling, because she's had sex with a married man (Henry's friend Simon, although Henry doesn't know that).  Then, while rejecting Henry, Aisling accidentally reveals that Elizabeth had an abortion years ago (Henry knew about the long-term affair with Johnny, but not about the pregnancy), so he phones Johnny (who didn't know about the pregnancy either), and goes home to confront Elizabeth, who "accidentally" pushes him down the stairs when he threatens to take their daughter away.  Almost none of this is in character for anyone.  Only the last couple of pages, where Aisling and Elizabeth decide to endure, feels at all likely.  I realize that Binchy had a lot of loose ends to tie up, but I would've preferred something like Aisling telling Johnny about the abortion, and immediately regretting it.

So why have I read this book so many times?  Well, first of all, I'm a sucker for novels that show how people and their families change over time.  Secondly, I do like the two main characters for the most part, and sometimes Eileen.  There are a few supporting characters I like, in particular Aisling's kid brother Donal.  Binchy is good at creating little Irish towns that feel fully populated.  I appreciate that Aisling's mother-in-law and Elizabeth's stepfather are made into sympathetic human beings, rather than evil stereotypes.  Partly because of the length (500+ pages), Binchy goes much deeper than she did in any of the short stories in Dublin 4, but that makes the book all the more frustrating, the raised expectations. 

Next time (yes, three Binchys in a row), I'll go into the chronology of her writing a bit more.  For now I'll say that this is definitely her first novel, and yes, we'll be doing her second, Echoes, in 1985.

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