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This is not the sort of book that I generally read; I like something to get my teeth into - an emotional, rocky journey. I found this book is more of a concerned trot through several years in the main characters' lives from aged 10 to around 30 years old.
I was given this book several years ago by a friend and it has languished on the bookshelf looking unappetising but a few weeks ago, having finished a book and having no new one to start, I decided to give 'Light a Penny Candle' a go.
Maeve Binchy was born in 1940 in Dublin, Ireland. She worked as a teacher and a journalist and then took up writing. 'Light a Penny Candle' was her first novel, written in 1982.
Elizabeth, a quiet 10yr old girl (only child from a quiet family) is evacuated in WW2 to Ireland and spends several years with the boisterous and large O'Connell family. She makes a best friend out of one of the children, Aisling, who is the same age as her. She is struck by how different and relaxed the O'Connell family are compared to her own rather reserved parents.
The narrative takes us through the girls' growing up and growing closer. Although Elizabeth is returned to her parents in London aged 14, their strong friendship continues via letters and the occaisonal meeting. The girls support each other through terrible times (parent's death, abortion, love problems and domestic violence) unfailingly. Elizabeth grows into an emotionally strong woman who is successful at teaching Art History and Aisling grows up to be a beautiful but frustrated housewife after she gives in to the Irish pressure for her to be married. The book shows times when Elizabeth's life is on the up but Aisling' s is rubbish - and vice versa. Towards the end of the book, we see the women trying to have a happy life (and achieving it in for short periods) but still making mistakes - and this leads to a fast-moving, unexpected end.
I believe the themes of Maeve Binchy's writing makes it so readable. She explores what it means to be Irish (principally an Irish woman) in the twentieth century, the nature of family including marriage, abortions and affairs. She deals with religion and the grip it had (and the evermore lessening grip it has as time goes on) on Irish families. Many of the themes are pertinent to the time (the war) but, like all great reads,have some contemporary relevance.
'Light a Penny Candle' has some strong, feisty Irish women characters in the form of Aisling and her kindly and generous mother Eileen. Irish men are portrayed to be men of few words and alcohol plays an important part in life for many of them - especially Aisling's husband who turns out to be a drunkard. Alcoholism also is explored through an English character too when Elizabeth's husband is disappointed a his being overlooked for promotion. English family life is observed through a microscope and we see the torturously stilted experience that Elizabeth has with her own mother and father. This is juxtaposed with the altogether more lively life of the Irish O'Connell family. Elizabeth's mother (Violet) is shown to be a woman who has been held back by the social restrictions of the time but breaks out from this in the war (whilst Elizabeth is away). She eventually has an affair and leaves to live with the gregarious 'Harry' (a dreadful thing to do then). Unfortunately, her mother succoms to mental illness and commits suicide in a hospital . Another interesting character is Johnny Stone, a man that both friends have as a lover (at different times). He is a commitmentphobe who is selfish and devilishly attractive at the same time. Even though he is (relatively) honest about his need to feel free and unmarried with the women - this still causes them great emotional pain.
I enjoyed the book although I did not find it a gripping page-turner. I especially enjoyed the honest and brave depiction of characters that could be considered as stereotypes. It feels like Maeve Binchy has clearly wanted to write what is her genuine experience of Irish and English people. You can't fault it - I can locate characters that fit into those moulds just from a quick think about the people I know in my life.
I particularly liked the depiction of Elizabeth's English father (George) who is obsessed with trying hard at work (and getting deserved rewards - it does not happen), who will not talk about feelings (in fact does not even understand how to experience them), who cannot carry out simple domestic tasks and who is intrinsically anti-social. These are traits that drive both his wife and daughter to distraction. We see George eventually learning to do a few things for himself, make a few friends and even express a feeling or two towards the end of the novel! This is all under the careful tutorage of his daughter, Elizabeth.
Also enjoyed was the depiction of trust in female friendships - which outlasts all other relationships. I was left wanting to know what happened to the two young women as they went through their thirties, forties and beyond.