Jenny Colgan: Warm and friendly, but Maeve Binchy's stories were never merely cosy

She was a commercial novelist with an unfussy style that helped her sell millions

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The Independent Online

I don't think I ever had a new copy of a Maeve Binchy. We weren't really a "new book" house, so they came from jumble sales or, more often, the library, where you could see they were well-loved: the return date stamps tumbling over one another as everyone in town read them all; the little dots people used to remind themselves they'd read it. (Do people still do that?)

And they didn't look like the kind of books I would like, either. They didn't have horses on the cover, or Aslan, or ballerinas (or, later on, Jilly Cooper riding crops or Stephen King monsters). They were pastels, watercolours, wishy-washy. They had older women and laundry and grown up problems. But oh, I loved them. Afternoon-lying-in-bed- wishing-I-was-Irish-and-falling- in-love-with-handsome-young- Americans loved them. My mum loved them ("Oh, just give me a good Norah Lofts/ Catherine Cookson/ Maeve Binchy"– the cry of mothers across the land when their bookworm daughters try to tempt them into more modish waters of Jeanette Winterson or Virginia Woolf). Everybody loved them: she sold more than 40 million copies around the world.

The reason isn't difficult to analyse, but it is incredibly difficult to do. Maeve was interested in people in all their foibles – very important for a commercial novelist – but, more importantly, she had the ability to convey this in clear, unfussy prose with genuine, unfaked empathy for both her characters and her readers. You were never in any doubt what she thought of naughty Sean, for example, in Circle of Friends, but she handled everyone with such warmth and kindness – he was no stereotypical baddie but simply human and real.

There is a special kind of pleasure to be taken from Maeve's books that transcends the merely cosy; the sense of everyone's mistakes, and fallings out, and family dramas, and friendships being simply part of an eventually benevolent cycle of life that will end well or, at the worst, in a bittersweet way.

It's totally unsurprising that you can see her influence everywhere today in women's fiction, particularly in the generation of hugely successful Irish girls – Marian Keyes, Sheila O'Flanagan, Patricia Scanlan and C athy Kelly – all of whom carry on her legacy of stories that take place close to home, are filled with humour and maintain a strong thread of belief in the essential decency of most people. (Maeve herself once remarked that she'd probably have tried to see a decent streak in Hitler if she'd met him.)

Her writing tips were terrific – "Write," she always said, "as if you're talking to someone in your kitchen" – and she couldn't bear pretension or frills. "Don't say the tears were coursing down her face," she advised once. "Just say, 'she cried'." She was no-nonsense but endlessly kind, like a cuddly agony aunt who could sort out all your troubles.

The lovely thing is, if you haven't read any Maeve, there is: a) absolutely loads to get stuck in to, particularly if you're sick of the sport and the weather is still absolutely cruddy, and b) your local library will have them all. Or your nearest charity shop.

They won't cost much, the pages will all have been folded down a million times, and they'll probably smell a bit odd, but it doesn't matter, because you are in for a treat if you enjoy a lovely, funny, gossipy chat about imaginary people you'll honestly come to think you know.

"I don't have any regrets about any roads I didn't take," Maeve mused in her last interview. "Everything went well". Because life does have happy endings, or at least bittersweet ones; because Maeve was right.

Jenny Colgan's new book, 'Christmas at the Cupcake Café,' is published by Sphere and is out in hardback on 25 October