I found a hard-cover version of Circle of Friends
on my mother's bookcase one summer during high school. I read it through in less than two days, took it with me to college, and re-read it so many times over the net few years that the binding eventually gave out. I didn't replace it, figuring that I had every page memorized.
The characters -- Benny Hogan, Eve Malone, Mother Francis, Peggy Pine, Mr. and Mrs. Hogan, Patsy, Sean Walsh, the Kennedys and Healys and Johnsons, Clodaugh, Mario and Fonsie, Kit Hegarty, Jack Foley and Aidan Lynch and Nan Mahon -- could be a person sitting opposite you on a bus, so real and full of personality and flaws and dreams are they. The situations they get themselves into, or find themselves lodged within, are simple ones, filled with drama and humour because of the deep care given to each human being involved. Even the villains aren't purely villainous; we see enough of the hopes and dreams and desires of Simon Westward, Sean Walsh, Nan Mahon, and Mrs. Healy that even their sins seem pardonable, their foibles human, their mistakes and lapses of judgment worthy of compassion.
The story is magnificent. Maeve Binchy
spins Irish yarns of the commonplace and realistic with quiet dexterity, but this one hangs fully on the shoulders of the characters themselves. Abandoned orphans, desperately love only children, drunken and abusive parents, first steps away from home, stealing from an employer, courting one who can never love you, falling in love and being loved in return, infidelity, unplanned pregnancy, placing trust in the wrong person, accidental death, abandonment as an adult, loneliness, finding friends, realizing the dreams you've worked toward can never be true, or finding out that the things you've wished for might actually come to pass -- these are commonplace situations that individual people find themselves in all the time; we know our own stories, and those of our friends and relations, or the neighbors down the street whom we can't help but gossip about. And we care about this ending, this resolution, the steps that take place after the last page, because we care for these characters.
Binchy creates friends for us in the pages of her novels, and in so doing, points the way to finding the friends we might never have had in the world outside it. What a gift.