Light a Penny Candle (by Maeve Binchy)

It’s many years since I started reading novels by the late Maeve Binchy. Many of them are set in Ireland, where she herself came from, and they tend to be warm family sagas. In my quest to re-read some of my favourite books, I decided to embark on ‘Light a Penny Candle’, one of Binchy’s earlier novels, and finished it yesterday.

At 600 pages this novel is rather daunting in length, but I found it made excellent bedtime reading. The last time I read it was seventeen years ago, and I had totally forgotten the plot. Not that there’s a great amount of main plot; it’s more a contrast of family life, with themes of love, friendship and trust.

Aisling and Elizabeth are the two main protagonists, and we switch between their viewpoints throughout the novel. Elizabeth is an only child of ten, living with rather rigid parents in wartime London. She must be evacuated, so her mother writes to her old schoolfriend Eileen in Ireland, to ask if she will take Elizabeth on.

Eileen’s family is about as different as is possible. She has six children, from teenage Sean to small Niamh, with Aisling, age ten, her fourth. They don’t have a great deal of money, but work hard, and enjoy life in a friendly, often noisy and tiring way. Their household is a great shock to shy Elizabeth at first, but she and Aisling quickly become friends, and as she spends the next few years there, she adjusts and matures, and even delves into Catholicism.

We follow the lives of the two before, during and after their years together. Unlike their mothers, they stay closely in touch, mostly by letters, and are willing to help each other out in crises. Their love-lives flounder sometimes, and flourish at others, and there are many subplots and cultural differences.

Binchy’s characters are beautifully drawn, and I found myself sympathising in turn with the two main girls, but also feeling that I got to know Aisling’s complaining older sister Maureen, and her spoilt younger sister too. Boys and men are less well-rounded, and I didn’t find any of them very likeable, other than the antique dealer Stefan whom Elizabeth works with.

Towards the end of the book there are some sad sections, though they are not unexpected or inappropriate. However,  I had a feeling that I really wasn’t going to like the final part, though, and I was right.  I don’t know why Maeve Binchy ended this book in such a discouraging and - frankly - unpleasant way; it left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth.  Her later books were a lot more uplifting and hopeful.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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