Week in Winter (Binchy)

A Week in Winter
Maeve Binchy, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307273574

Stoneybridge is a small town on the west coast of Ireland where all the families know one another. When Chicky Starr decides to take an old, decaying mansion set high on the cliffs overlooking the windswept Atlantic Ocean and turn it into a restful place for a holiday by the sea, everyone thinks she is crazy. Helped by Rigger (a bad boy turned good who is handy around the house) and Orla, her niece (a whiz at business), Chicky is finally ready to welcome the first guests to Stone House’s big warm kitchen, log fires, and understated elegant bedrooms.

John, the American movie star, thinks he has arrived incognito; Winnie and Lillian are forced into taking a holiday together; Nicola and Henry, husband and wife, have been shaken by seeing too much death practicing medicine; Anders hates his father’s business, but has a real talent for music; Miss Nell Howe, a retired schoolteacher, criticizes everything and leaves a day early, much to everyone’s relief; the Walls are disappointed to have won this second-prize holiday in a contest where first prize was Paris; and Freda, the librarian, is afraid of her own psychic visions.

Sharing a week with this unlikely cast of characters is pure joy, full of Maeve’s trademark warmth and humor. Once again, she embraces us with her grand storytelling. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—May 28, 1940
Where—Dalkey (outside Dublin), Ireland
Death—July 30, 2012
Where—Dalkey, Ireland
Education—B.A., University College, Dublin
Awards—see below

Maeve Binchy Snell was an Irish novelist, playwright, short story writer, columnist, and speaker. She is best known for her humorous take on small-town life in Ireland, her descriptive characters, her interest in human nature and her often clever surprise endings. Her novels, which were translated into 37 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and her death, announced by Vincent Browne on Irish television late on 30 July 2012, was mourned as the passing of Ireland's best-loved and most recognisable writer.

Her books have outsold those of other Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien and Roddy Doyle. She cracked the U.S. market, featuring on the New York Times best-seller list and in Oprah's Book Club. Recognised for her "total absence of malice" and generosity to other writers, she finished ahead of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Stephen King in a 2000 poll for World Book Day.

Early life
Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin (modern-day Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown), Ireland, the oldest child of four. Her siblings include one brother, William Binchy, Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College, Dublin, and two sisters: Renie (who predeceased Binchy) and Joan Ryan. Her uncle was the historian D. A. Binchy (1899–1989). Educated at the Holy Child Convent in Killiney and University College Dublin (where she earned a bachelor's degree in history), she worked as a teacher of French, Latin, and history at various girls' schools, then a journalist at the Irish Times, and later became a writer of novels, short stories, and dramatic works.

In 1968, her mother died of cancer aged 57. After Binchy's father died in 1971, she sold the family house and moved to a bedsit in Dublin.

Her parents were Catholics and Binchy attended a convent school. However, a trip to Israel profoundly affected both her career and her faith. As she confided in a Q&A with Vulture:

In 1963, I worked in a Jewish school in Dublin, teaching French with an Irish accent to kids, primarily Lithuanians. The parents there gave me a trip to Israel as a present. I had no money, so I went and worked in a kibbutz—plucking chickens, picking oranges. My parents were very nervous; here I was going out to the Middle East by myself. I wrote to them regularly, telling them about the kibbutz. My father and mother sent my letters to a newspaper, which published them. So I thought, It’s not so hard to be a writer. Just write a letter home. After that, I started writing other travel articles.

Additionally, one Sunday, attempting to locate where the Last Supper is supposed to have occurred, she climbed a mountainside to a cavern guarded by a Brooklyn-born Israeli soldier. She wept with despair. The soldier asked, “What’ya expect, ma’am—a Renaissance table set for 13?” She replied, “Yes! That’s just what I did expect.” Binchy was no longer a Catholic.

Binchy, described as "six feet tall, rather stout, and garrulous", confided to Gay Byrne of the Late Late Show that, growing up in Dalkey, she never felt herself to be attractive; "as a plump girl I didn't start on an even footing to everyone else", she shared. After her mother's death, she expected to a lead a life of spinsterhood, or as she expressed: "I expected I would live at home, as I always did." She continued, "I felt very lonely, the others all had a love waiting for them and I didn't."

She ultimately encountered the love of her life, however; when recording a piece for Woman's Hour in London, she met children's author Gordon Snell, then a freelance producer with the BBC. Their friendship blossomed into a cross-border romance, with her in Ireland and him in London, until she eventually secured a job in London through the Irish Times. She and Snell married in 1977 and after living in London for a time, moved to Ireland. They lived together in Dalkey, not far from where she had grown up, until Binchy's death. She told the Irish Times:

[A] writer, a man I loved and he loved me and we got married and it was great and is still great. He believed I could do anything, just as my parents had believed all those years ago, and I started to write fiction and that took off fine. And he loved Ireland, and the fax was invented so we writers could live anywhere we liked, instead of living in London near publishers.

Ill health...and death
In 2002, Binchy "suffered a health crisis related to a heart condition," which inspired her to write Heart and Soul. The book about (what Binchy terms) "a heart failure clinic" in Dublin and the people involved with it, reflects many of her own experiences and observations in the hospital.

Towards the end of her life, Binchy had the following message on her official website: "My health isn't so good these days and I can't travel around to meet people the way I used to. But I'm always delighted to hear from readers, even if it takes me a while to reply."

She suffered with severe arthritis, which left her in constant pain. As a result of the arthritis she had a hip operation.

Binchy died on 30 July 2012 after a short illness. She was 72.] Gordon was by her side when she died in a Dublin hospital. Immediate media reports described Binchy as "beloved", "Ireland's most well-known novelist" and the "best-loved writer of her generation". Fellow writers mourned their loss, including Ian Rankin, Jilly Cooper, Anne Rice, and Jeffrey Archer. Politicians also paid tribute. President Michael D. Higgins stated: "Our country mourns." Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, “Today we have lost a national treasure.” Minister of State for Disability, Equality and Mental Health Kathleen Lynch, appearing as a guest on Tonight with Vincent Browne, said Binchy was, for her money, as worthy an Irish writer as James Joyce or Oscar Wilde, and praised her for selling so many more books than they managed.

In the days after her death tributes were published from such writers as John Banville, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Tóibín. Banville contrasted Binchy with Gore Vidal, who died the day after her, observing that Vidal "used to say that it was not enough for him to succeed, but others must fail. Maeve wanted everyone to be a success." Numerous tributes appeared in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Guardian and CBC News.

Shortly before her death, Binchy told the Irish Times:

I don't have any regrets about any roads I didn't take. Everything went well, and I think that's been a help because I can look back, and I do get great pleasure out of looking back ... I've been very lucky and I have a happy old age with good family and friends still around.

Just before dying, she read her latest short story at the Dalkey Book Festival.

She once said she would like to die "... on my 100th birthday, piloting Gordon and myself into the side of a mountain." She was cremated that Friday in Mount Jerome. It was a simple ceremony, as she had requested.

The New York Times reports: Binchy's "writing career began by accident in the early 1960s, after she spent time on a kibbutz in Israel. Her father was so taken with her letters home that "he cut off the ‘Dear Daddy’ bits,” Ms. Binchy later recounted, and sent them to an Irish newspaper, which published them." Donal Lynch observed of her first paying journalism role: the Irish Independent "was impressed enough to commission her, paying her £16, which was then a week-and-a-half's salary for her."

In 1968, Binchy joined the staff at the Irish Times, and worked there as a writer, columnist, the first Women's Page editor then the London editor, later reporting for the paper from London before returning to Ireland.

Binchy's first published book is a compilation of her newspaper articles titled My First Book. Published in 1970, it is now out of print. As Binchy's bio posted at Read Ireland describes: "The Dublin section of the book contains insightful case histories that prefigure her novelist's interest in character. The rest of the book is mainly humorous, and particularly droll is her account of a skiing holiday, 'I Was a Winter Sport.'"

Literary works
In all, Binchy published 16 novels, four short-story collections, a play and a novella. Her literary career began with two books of short stories: Central Line (1978) and Victoria Line (1980). She published her debut novel Light a Penny Candle in 1982. In 1983, it sold for the largest sum ever paid for a first novel: £52,000. The timing was fortuitous, as Binchy and her husband were two months behind with the mortgage at the time. However, the prolific Binchy—who joked that she could write as fast as she could talk—ultimately became one of Ireland's richest women.

Her first book was rejected five times. She would later describe these rejections as "a slap in the face [...] It's like if you don't go to a dance you can never be rejected but you'll never get to dance either".

Most of Binchy's stories are set in Ireland, dealing with the tensions between urban and rural life, the contrasts between England and Ireland, and the dramatic changes in Ireland between World War II and the present day. Her books were translated into 37 languages.

While some of Binchy's novels are complete stories (Circle of Friends, Light a Penny Candle), many others revolve around a cast of interrelated characters (The Copper Beech, Silver Wedding, The Lilac Bus, Evening Class, and Heart and Soul). Her later novels, Evening Class, Scarlet Feather, Quentins, and Tara Road, feature a cast of recurring characters.

Binchy announced in 2000 that she would not tour any more of her novels, but would instead be devoting her time to other activities and to her husband, Gordon Snell. Five further novels were published before her death—Quentins (2002), Nights of Rain and Stars (2004), Whitethorn Woods (2006), Heart and Soul (2008), and Minding Frankie (2010). Her final work, A Week in Winter, was published posthumously in 2012.

Binchy wrote several dramas specifically for radio and the silver screen. Additionally, several of her novels and short stories were adapted for radio, film, and television.

Awards and honours

  • In 1978, Binchy won a Jacob's Award for her RTÉ play, Deeply Regretted By. A second award went to the lead actor, Donall Farmer.
  • A 1993 photograph of her by Richard Whitehead belongs to the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (London) and a painting of her by Maeve McCarthy, commissioned in 2005, is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland.
  • In 1999, she received the British Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
  • In 2000, she received a People of the Year Award.
  • In 2001, Scarlet Feather won the W H Smith Book Award for Fiction, defeating works by Joanna Trollope and then reigning Booker winner Margaret Atwood, amongst other contenders.
  • In 2007, she received the Irish PEN Award, joining such luminaries as John B. Keane, Brian Friel, Edna O'Brien, William Trevor, John McGahern and Seamus Heaney.
  • In 2010, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Book Awards.
  • In 2012, she received an Irish Book Award in the "Irish Popular Fiction Book" category for A Week in Winter.
  • There have been posthumous proposals to name a new Liffey crossing Binchy Bridge in memory of the writer Other writers to have Dublin bridges named after them include Beckett, Joyce and O'Casey.
  • In 2012 a new garden behind the Dalkey Library in County Dublin was dedicated in memory of Binchy. (Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
The late great Binchy’s last novel is an appropriately heartwarming and spirit restoring swan song. In classic Binchy-style, the gentle story is populated with a large cast of often eccentric, always endearing characters.... Stone House, a country inn on the West Coast of Ireland serves as the cozy setting for these interrelated tales of love, loss, friendship, and community.... Pour yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up, and prepare to savor this bit of comfort food for the soul

The beloved, prolific Binchy's posthumous last novel is classic Binchy (Minding Frankie, 2011, etc.), peeking into the lives of characters from various walks of life brought together at a newly opened inn on the West Coast of Ireland. After 20 years in America and pretending she's been widowed by an American husband she never actually married, Chicky returns to her hometown of Stoneybridge to turn an elderly spinster's run-down cliffside mansion into an inn.... While Binchy's stories are sketchier than usual, perhaps understandably rushed, her fans will find solace as hearts mend and relationships sort themselves out one last time.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Why is Chicky attracted to Walter? Why does she defy her mother’s doubts and admonitions about going to New York [p. 6]? “Reality was, for Chicky, this whole fantasy world that she had invented of a bustling, successful Manhattan lifestyle” [p. 9]. Do Chicky’s deceptions blind her to Walter’s true character? Does she love him? What other feelings might explain her pleas to him to stay [p. 11]?

2. After Walter leaves, Chicky vows she will never go back to Stoneybridge. Is she motivated by pride and stubbornness or does her decision reflect realistic concerns about the reactions her return is likely to generate? How do her periodic visits home influence her feelings about her family and Stoneybridge [p. 15]?

3. Step-by-step, Chicky takes charge of her life in New York. What character traits help her succeed? Discuss Mrs. Cassidy’s observations when Chicky leaves for Stoneybridge after twenty years in New York [p. 22-23]. In what ways does Chicky’s temperament, as well as her skills, prepare her for life as an innkeeper?

4. In Winnie and Lillian’s antagonistic relationship, which woman initially has the upper hand and why? How does Teddy’s behavior affect their opinions and interactions? What do they learn about each other when they are trapped in the cave? What do they learn about themselves?

5. Why is John eager to hide his true identity during his stay at Stone House? What advantages does he enjoy as an actor and what toll has his career taken on his personal life? Do you think he represents a majority of celebrities? Are Orla’s insights about the nature of fame persuasive [pp. 155-60]?

6. Henry and Nicola are shaken by the deaths they have seen as doctors. Why have their attempts to create satisfying careers been futile? What does the prospect of practicing in Stoneybridge offer them both personally and professionally?

7. What does Anders’s story convey about the difficulties of making a choice when one is faced with a conflict between duty and desire? How do his mother’s and Erika’s actions and advice, as well as his relationship with his father, influence him? What aspects of his experiences in Ireland help him to clarify his goals? What does his conversation with Chicky reveal about the way we ultimately make decisions [pp. 226-27]?

8. The description of the Walls and their obsession with contests is at once humorous and touching. What does their story demonstrate about the foundations of a loving long-term marriage? How do their enthusiasms change and enrich the experiences of the group at the inn?

9. Nell Howe is the only guest unmoved by the charms of Stone House. What accounts for her resistance to the atmosphere at the inn and her critical opinions of her fellow guests? What do her conversations with Rigger [pp. 271-72] and Carmel [pp. 296-98] reveal about her and the reasons she is unable or unwilling to bond with other people? Does her stay at Stone House change her in any way?

10. Why does Freda try to ignore or repress the visions she has? How do they interfere with her everyday life and her hopes and plans for the future?  Even without her special “feelings,” is she foolish to embark on a love affair with Mark? Why does she decide to tell a “group of strangers” [p. 323] about her psychic powers? Reread the predictions she makes [p. 324]. Which of them do you think will come true?

11. Talk about how Binchy introduces each of the guests at Stone House. How does she pique your interest in them? Which character makes the strongest first impression? Which one takes the longest to get to know?

12. Anders tells himself, “Problems don’t solve themselves neatly like that, due to a set of coincidences. Problems are solved by making decisions” [p. 224]. Discuss how the various stories in A Week in Winter confirm or belie this observation.

13. Minor characters are an important part of A Week in Winter. What do Miss Queenie, Orla, and Rigger and Carmel contribute to the novel? What insights do their behavior, attitudes, and ambitions provide into the connections as well as the conflicts between traditional and contemporary Irish culture and society? Why does Nuela refuse to see her son, Rigger? What makes her change her mind?

14. Binchy is well known for making the landscape of rural Ireland as vital as the characters in her novels. What descriptions of the countryside and the coast in the wintertime are particularly vivid or evocative? How do they help set the mood of the narrative?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020