By a chance phone call, Ria meets Marilyn, a woman from New England unable to come to terms with her only son's death and now separated from her husband. The two women exchange houses for the summer with extraordinary consequences, each learning that the other has a deep secret that can never be revealed.
Drawn into lifestyles vastly differing from their own, at first each resents the news of how well the other is getting on. Ria seems to have become quite a hostess, entertaining half the neighborhood, which at first irritates the reserved and withdrawn Marilyn, a woman who has always guarded her privacy. Marilyn seems to have become bosom friends with Ria's children, as well as with Colm, a handsome restaurateur, whom Ria has begun to miss terribly.
At the end of the summer, the women at last meet face-to-face. Having learned a great deal, about themselves and about each other, they find that they have become, firmly and forever, good friends.
Maeve Binchy was born in a small village outside of Dublin, Ireland. She spent her childhood living in Dalkey, an experience she draws on today when creating the rural villages usually at the heart of her novels.
After receiving her B.A. from University College in Dublin, she began working as a teacher. The experience she had while teaching at a Jewish school and on vacation in Israel compelled her to find work on a kibbutz. While abroad in Israel, she wrote weekly letters to her father describing life in a country constantly on the brink of war. When Binchy's father sold one of her letters to The Irish Times for 18 pounds, Binchy, who had been making 16 pounds working at the school, thought that she had truly "arrived."
Since these humble beginnings, Binchy's success has been astounding. She has written three volumes of short stories entitled This Year It Will Be Different, The Return Journey and London Transports, two plays and a teleplay that won three awards at the Prague Film Festival. She is perhaps best known, however, for her bestselling novels Evening Class, The Glass Lake, The Copper Beach, The Lilac Bus, Circle of Friends, Silver Wedding, Firefly Summer, Echoes and Light a Penny Candle. Movie audiences everywhere adored the film version of Circle of Friends, produced by Savoy Pictures, which starred Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell.
The Daily Telegraph recently told its readers that "the greats of Irish literature - including Samuel Beckett, Brendan Beham, W.B. Yeats, and Oscar Wilde - have been outsold in their homeland by the popular novelist Maeve Binchy." Were you surprised to learn this news, and how has this success affected your lifestyle?
I take this news very lightly indeed! Of course, it is monstrously flattering and my ego is as big as anyone else's, but you have to be in some way realistic!
I want my books to draw the readers into the tale that is being unfolded. I do not write poetry, I do not have a particular literary style, I am not experimental, nor have I explored a new form of literature. I tell a story and I want to share it with my readers. In today's world, where audiences want to lose themselves for a while, there does seem to be a place for the stories I write, I am delighted to say.
In terms of changing my life, my popularity hasn't very much. I was 43 years old when I became a bestselling author. I was already happy then, married to a man I love, the writer Gordon Snell. We had a very good life with not quite enough money to pay the bills. But we didn't buy a new house, we just did up the old one and made it more comfortable, and it's wonderful not to have to worry about providing for our old age any more.
Contemporary Irish literature has become an American phenomenon in recent years. Why do you think it's so popular in this country?
I think the Irish are lucky in that we never had the Victorian concept of waiting until you have something to say before you say it! We value good talkers much more than good listeners, and we love telling stories. This fluent delight in telling what happened is easily translated into writing down our thoughts. Many people in the United States have some Irish roots or at least live near or work with someone who tells tales of an Irish childhood, their own or their ancestors'. So there is something familiar about an Irish home life even to those who never experienced it.
Your books tend to explore events in small-town life. Why have you chosen this as your focus?
I usually write about events in a small town, or in this case a small neighborhood of a capital city, for a very specific reason. It's easier to keep control of your characters!
You see, if they each lived in a different place, you would have to keep inventing reasons that they meet each other all the time. Much simpler to herd them all together. I thought I had invented this device myself, but apparently the ancient Greek writers knew all about it and called it the "Unity of Space!"
Are the characters in your book based on real people?
No, my father was a lawyer and he always advised me strongly against this. He said we would be paying the litigation for years. I sometimes steal little aspects of people's personalities and add them to totally fictitious characters. When other people think I'm not looking, I eavesdrop and lip-read to learn how they live.
At the heart of Ria's story, you touch upon the subject of divorce which has only recently been accepted in Irish culture. What are you thoughts about love, marriage and divorce?
When I was young, there was no divorce, people lived together, often long lives of ill-disguised hate and coldness. It was, of course, safer for the children in that they never had to see the family they loved break up. But some of those marriages should have ended. There was too much emphasis on what other people might think or say or whisper about. Like anyone, I obviously would wish and hope that a marriage promise would be fulfilled and last forever, but also like anyone, I am realistic enough to know that this doesn't always happen.
So I would prefer there to be laws and regulations that would protect the innocent and give dignity to the disappointing and unlooked-for end to a bargain made in good faith on the wedding day. I don't think marriages just work automatically, and in a changing world, where the roles of men and women change from one decade to the next, the goalposts seem to move.
There are no absolutes. But possibly a later marriage, when both men and women have had some experience of life and hopes and dreams, would work best. But then again, I know many magnificent marriages where a young couple have been able to grow up with their children.
How do you react to the film adaptations of your books?
I have been very lucky indeed, since Circle of Friends was a delightful movie with two engaging and handsome young stars, Chris O'Donnell and Minnie Driver, to bring my characters to the screen. Television version of Echoes and The Lilac Bus were also excellent. There are at present several negotiations going on with studios about Evening Class and Tara Road, and I am sure they will work out well, too.
How do you feel about being famous?
I am always pleased when people say they like my books, and I never thought that there was any image to live up to in being a bestselling writer. Gordon and I work happily side by side in a big, sunny room with two very much loved cats who sit by and watch us. My brother and sisters live nearby. And we have the same good friends as we always had. I grew up in this area, so no one would let be become big-headed even if I wanted to.