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I read 'The Lilac Bus' immediately after reading 'Light a penny Candle' as I had both novels contained in a hardback book. Reading the first one gave me a taste for the second - which was a shorter novel of a different caliber.
Maeve Binchy was born in 1940 in Dublin, Ireland. She worked as a teacher and a journalist and then took up writing. 'The Lilac Bus' was her second novel written after 'Light a Penny Candle' in 1982. She is Ireland's most popular writer as her books outsell all others. Her novels deal with, primarily, the lives of Irish people - often the more middle classes - and even more often - women. In a way, she lets us look through the keyhole of Irish families and see the intricacies of their relationships. She does this in a non judgmental manner that allows us to just observe and marvel.
There is no continuing narrative in this book in the way that often books have one, (or sometimes two or three main characters) and deal with the story from that/those points of view. In 'The Lilac Bus' has eight main characters who are all apportioned equal attention. I like this very much because it moves away from the idea of the 'perfect play' (or plot) with one, usually male protagonist (Aristotle's idea) and there is a validation of all lives within the story.
As you start reading and by the second chapter, you realize that the characters all have a sort of connection in that they share a bus home from Dublin to Ranoon on a Friday night and return to Dublin on it on a Sunday. They are connected to each other also by conversations, musings, observations (often wrong) and bumping into each other in the small town that they all return to. It is a story of interconnected lives.
The narrative starts with the viewpoint of Nancy, a mean and boring girl who cannot understand the reactions of others to her behavior. I enjoyed the exploration of this character because, in life, I often am aware that most people seriously underestimate the impact of their own behavior on others - making light of or dismissing it. Nancy finds her painful way in the telling of her story - and ends up with some degree of self-awareness.
Dee is an attractive girl who is overly interested in Nancy's boring life (connections), choosing to sit on the bus and talk to her. We find out why and understand her traumas and dilemmas.
Mikey is a cheeky chappy who tries hard to be liked in Dublin and on the bus. Many people find him overbearing in his constant jokey manner. We learn to understand his life and see a different side to him as his chapter closes.
Judy is a middle aged woman with a bit of a secret in her past and it is one that she has paid dearly for in a way that many readers would find heartbreaking. In the story we find that she has been set up by someone richer than herself and with greater influence and now accepts the terrible consequences and lives her life quietly.
Kev is a quiet young man who should have the world at his feet but who has suddenly become quite edgy and nervous. Something is troubling him deeply and in his chapter we find out what it is and see him face up to it.
Rupert is a young man who returns home every weekend despite having a difficult relationship with his parents. He too is hiding a secret that he no longer wants to keep.
Celia is a dutiful daughter who returns every weekend to help out in her mother's pub as her mother is in denial about her own alcoholism and the effect it is having on the community and the family business. We see Celia try to confront her mother about this tricky issue.
Finally, Tom, the owner and driver of the bus has his chapter. We learn about his family and why he is driving the bus (that he painted lilac) every weekend - operating his non-legit paying service .
My Opinion (more of it anyway)
I really loved the ways that these lives crossed over and the speculation of each one about the others. It reflects what happens in real life - families' low level gossip about individuals. It is often wrong, it is often a bit nasty but it happens - and Maeve Binchy's novel depicts this very well.
I also really liked reading all of the stories - but some even more than others. I enjoyed the descriptions of the friendly underworld in Kev's story because I was looking into a world I know exists - but do not have access to; it was slightly amusing even though poor Kev clearly did not think so. Again, it was written with the non judgmental pen - but this did not make it lifeless - no, we can see touches of BInchy's viewpoint peeping through (sun behind clouds sort of thing). I found the description of Celia's alcoholic mother to be stunningly accurate in depicting how painful others found it to watch and the dilemma of those closest to her. I liked the character of Tom and the way Binchy validated his non-ambitions.
Basically, I enjoyed reading about the uninspiring on a large scale - but inspiring on a much smaller scale - lives of these characters. I cared about them all and was satisfied at the end that many of the characters had found some sort of illumination or closure to their dilemmas. There is also a bit of a 'feelgood factor' at the end when we glimpse what might be - in the future - a happy ending.
Does Maeve Binchy believe in happy endings? No, I don't think she does. She believes in problem solving and the beneficial effects of a generous spirit. This is what I have read about in this book.
I came across The Lilac Bus quite by accident in a charity shop. I had read books by Maeve Binchy before and remembered quite enjoying them (although I hadn't read anything of hers recently) and this book was in good condition and the name of it intrigued me. I read the spiel on the back and thought I wasn't going to be disappointed paying out £0.30 in a charity shop for a book by an author that I already knew and respected.
~*~ PLOT/CHARACTERS ~*~
Tom FitzGerald takes a group of people to Dublin for work at the start of each week from Rathdoon and brings them back every Friday. There's Nancy Morris, known as Miss Mouse, who works in a hospital as a secretary and is known for her mean ways by all of the residents of Rathdoon as well as her flatmate and colleagues at work. Then you have young Dee Burke, the daughter of a respected doctor, who is studying to be a lawyer. Why does she show such an interest in Nancy every week on the way home? It's not as if they mix in the same circles. There's also middle aged Mikey Burns, who works as a bank porter and tells inappropriate jokes. Why is he such a chirpy chap? Or is he really? We have Judy Hickey who's a few years older than Mikey but seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. Kev Kennedy's a quiet one, never has much luggage to bring to Dublin or back home aside from a parcel every week. What's that about? Rupert Green dresses well and loves chatting with Judy, but what's his secret? As the 20 something year old son of aged parents, why does he return home every weekend? It's not as if he really enjoys giving them his company. And what about Celia Ryan whose mother runs the local pub in Rathdoon and seems intent on making a fool of herself all of the time in front of the local population and drinking away the profits?
And what of Tom FitzGerald himself? Why does he take these people back and forth each week? Why did he paint his bus lilac?
~*~ MY ANALYSIS ~*~
The Lilac Bus was Binchy's second novel preceded by Light A Penny Candle in 1982. Circle of Friends (which to my mind was her most successful novel) was released 6 years after The Lilac Bus in 1990. I remember reading Circle of Friends years ago and really enjoying it, then watching the Hollywood film version of it starring Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell and thought to myself as I read The Lilac Bus that I would love to see this book made into a film. Having had a browse around the internet, I found that the book has actually been made into a film which I intend to track down and watch soon!
As I read the first chapter of the book which happened to be about Nancy Morris, I realised what was to come. Each chapter is about each of the individuals who travel on The Lilac Bus with the last chapter of the book dedicated to the owner of the bus, Tom FitzGerald.
Each chapter is like a little story in its own right BUT the other characters on the bus are mentioned at regular intervals, some in good; some in bad ways but all making complete sense as one gets further and further into the book. Each chapter is written in such a way that at the end of it you feel that that character's story has been satisfactorily wound up, whether it be in a good or bad or sad way. At the end of the first chapter I didn't like the character any more than I did at the start of it but I understood her more and somewhat empathised with her behaviour even though to even consider being so miserly is completely alien to me. I liked the way her character got confused at why Dee Burke would bother sitting and listen to her on the journey home each week and ask so many questions about her job and her colleagues and she's honestly flattered although surprised that Dee remember so much about her work stories that she asks about the consultants by name.
When I got into the second chapter which was about Dee, the reason for Dee's interest in Nancy's work life became very clear and it was very clever the way each chapter from then on explained something about the characters from their own viewpoint which each other character wondered about in previous and later chapters. I couldn't help but smile to myself knowingly when a character was confused about another character's behaviour and honestly found myself rushing through the pages to find out more and more about each individual who travelled on The Lilac Bus.
The book is only 200 pages long and took me just a matter of days to finish - to be honest I could have finished the whole book in one sitting but it was quite convenient for me to finish a couple of chapters and put it down and to be able to look forward to reading more later. I must admit I was quite disappointed when I got to the end of the book, not because of anything lacking in the book but because I didn't want it to finish - I found myself getting quite attached to the characters - which is a bit of a novelty to me.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the review I hadn't read a Maeve Binchy novel in quite a while and I had forgotten what an easy writing style she has. I found The Lilac Bus very easy to read and felt myself transported to this lovely place in Ireland and even picturing what the neighbourhood looks like and what the characters look like. Binchy doesn't spend too much time describing the characters' actual appearances but you do get a feel for what they could look like quite quickly which I think is a great achievement in considering it's quite a short novel!
~*~ A BIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR ~*~
Maeve Binchy was born in 1940 and is a modern day fiction writer whose books mainly concentrate on modern day and timeless issues faced by Irish women in urban and rural areas. She worked as a teacher and journalist before becoming a short story and novel writer. Although Binchy announced in 2000 that she would not be writing any more novels due to wanting to spend more time with her husband and other activities, she has since written another three novels. It's refreshing to know that, despite being a successful author, Binchy still lives very close to where she grew up in Dalkey, not far from Dublin.
~*~ WHERE TO GET THE BOOK ~*~
I mentioned that I found my copy of The Lilac Bus in charity shop for just 30 pence with the cover price was listed as £5.99 with Random House/Arrow listed as the publishers. The ISBN number is 0-0995-0290-0 for the paperback and 0-7126-9404-8 for the hardback version and you can buy it for £5.49 from Amazon or from ekmpowershop3.com for 3 Euros + (3.30 Euros for delivery).
The Lilac Bus was first published in 1984 by Ward River Press Ltd in Co. Dublin.
~*~ RECOMMENDED OR NOT? ~*~
Personally I thoroughly enjoyed the book and my only complaint was that it was too short - I wanted it to go on for longer but that doesn't mean that I felt the author cut any corners with the chapters or characters. If the book had been longer, one's interest might have waned so I have to admit that it was the right length. If you enjoy books about the problems faced by people who live in rural areas but work or study in big towns this would be a good read for you.
NB: this review is also published at Ciao by myself on the same username