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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.