If you are an American reader, then the word “Tara” may put you in mind of a certain Georgia mansion, one that Union soldiers tore apart during the Civil War and Scarlett O’Hara resolutely, even haughtily, puts back in order. If you are an Irish reader, then the word “Tara” will call up a hill in County Meath from which the high kings looked out over their domain. Either interpretation has meaning when it comes to Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road, a lively binational novel published in the U.K. in 1998 and here the following year, and soon after chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club and elevated to bestsellerdom.
The Tara Road that gives the book its title is a rambling street on the distant edges of Dublin, a city that Binchy once described as an overgrown village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Ria Lynch has been living in a house with her husband, Danny, that he described on first seeing it as “falling down, damp, shabby now.” Ria reluctantly goes along with the purchase, one that, even though the ramshackle place is a great bargain, is still beyond their means, with its 15% down payment—“and nine thousand pounds was like nine million to them.” Somehow they scrape up the money, and the years go by: Children arrive, Danny’s career takes off, comfort and complacency settle in.
So do Ria’s friends, making a neighborhood hub of 16 Tara Rd. But something is missing—and it turns out to be her husband’s fidelity; he’s been having affairs right and left and now has produced a child outside the marriage. Shaken, Ria takes up an improbable coincidence, swapping houses and lives with an American academic who settles in at 16 Tara Rd. and soon learns the household’s secrets, including an act of betrayal on the part of Ria’s best friend, even as Ria comes to understand the grief that fills Marilyn’s heart.
It sounds heavy, but Binchy deftly spins the tale with exactly the right words and moods and with ample good humor. When Ria arrives in New England and falls in with a couple of Marilyn’s friends, she laughingly says, “I’m a sadder case than either of you….I’m a deserted wife from Ireland over here to sort out my head and on my first day in America I fall in with two lushes and get pissed out of my brains.” Marilyn, for her part, learns a simple truth: “These things happen,” things that befall good and bad people alike.
Maeve Binchy, who died in 2012, has been described, dismissively, as a writer of “chick-lit.” But though it has elements of the bodice-ripper, her work goes far deeper: Her protagonists are women, usually of a certain age, who discover that they can live on their own, and more happily than before. Binchy herself considered her novels to be “airplane reading,” noting happily that she’d seen people buy them, start to read them in flight, and nod off. Job done, then—but those who stick with Tara Road and its kin will find her books to be entertaining, expertly written portraits of changing times and changing lives.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.