The success of Maeve Binchy's novel "Tara Road" stems from two separate sources. The novel began its success due to Binchy's talent, good reputation, and the desirable escape that the plot provided for everyday readers. The success was continued and propelled further to new audiences when the book was chosen as the 26th Oprah Book Club book.
In an interview with Oprah Winfry, Maeve Binchy explained, "I want my books to draw the readers into the tale that is being unfolded. I do not write poetry, I do not have a particular literary style, I am not experimental, nor have I explored a new form of literature. I tell a story and I want to share it with my readers. In today's world, where audiences want to lose themselves for a while, there does seem to be a place for the stories I write, I am delighted to say." (Oprah.com) Binchy's novel "Tara Road" became a bestseller because it allowed people to escape from their everyday lives. The novel tells the story of Ria Lynch, an Irish woman who meets and marries the man of her dreams. After years of trying to create the perfect lifestyle and family, Ria discovers that her husband Danny has been cheating on her and is leaving to be with his pregnant girlfriend. Ria's world, which centered around Danny and her family, comes tumbling down. As she struggles to rebuild her life, and her conceptions of happiness, she agrees to switch houses with an American named Marilyn Vine for one summer. As Marilyn and Ria begin to interact with the former neighbors and friends in each other's lives, they discover many different things about each other as well as themselves. The change helps both of them to put things in perspective and begin to move on to a new stage of life.
Binchy is known for creating realistic characters that people can relate to. Although her main character is often a middle aged woman, she also uses people of all different ages as supporting characters. Her interesting characters provide an alternative to the everyday problems of real people. Amy Waldman writes, "Vivid characters and relationships--or predicaments, you might say--are at the heart of Binchy's success" in her review of the novel in People Weekly. The reader feels like they have made new friends through the novel, and are able to empathize with the characters and watch them overcome the problems they face. In an interview in Publisher's Weekly, Binchy comments that "I don't have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks" (Weber). Realistic characterization was one of the things that was most commented on by contemporary reviewers of the novel. Barbara Valle writes in the Library Journal that the "characters are distinctly and vividly drawn." The accessible characters in Binchy's narrative are one of the key ingredients that help her novels to allow people to escape into an alternative world through the story.
The success of Binchy's novel can be partly attributed to her framework of normality: Binchy is able to provide the reader with a realistic escape that will neither create tension or anxiety (as a mystery novel might) or prompt the reader to wish for a better life (as a glamorous novel might). In an interview, Binchy described herself as "an escapist kind of writer" (bookreporter.com). Binchy aims at the audience that many other bestsellers miss, the readers who just want a break from their own lives through a novel that makes them feel good. The novel is about normal people and their interactions, instead of extraordinary people in odd situations. Reviewer Brad Hooper comments, "The sum and substance of this engaging novel becomes what each woman learns about the other and, more importantly, what they learn about themselves through the course of their odd project." Binchy's novels do not use any of the gimmicks employed by many bestsellers. The plot is not exciting and filled with danger, the characters are not glamorous, and there is no underlying mystery or violence in the story. However, although the characters themselves and the way they handle life is realistic, Binchy does include a degree of fantasy in the novel. The novel taps into the inaccessible desire to trade places with another person. The characters in the novel are able to leave their entire world behind to escape into a life created by another person for a few weeks. Although the novel's conflicts and obstacles are just as upsetting as a more dramatic novel, the character's ability to overcome the issues and move on with life in a realistic way provides a sense of hope that is more easily transferred to the reader's own life than a conclusion to a mystery novel would.
It is not surprising that "Tara Road" was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection. Binchy's realistic style of writing and the types of books she normally writes overlaps with the types of books that Oprah chooses for her book club. Binchy often writes about Irish women protagonists who are average people dealing with problems such as betrayal or loss. They often start out as insecure characters but learn and gain confidence as they overcome their obstacle. The novels can be seen as almost a type of "coming of age" story, but for older adult characters. The characters usually become aware of something, like an affair, that opens their eyes and causes them to view themselves, and the world, differently. D.T. Max wrote about "The Oprah Effect" and noticed a trend in the types of novels she picks for the book club. Oprah tries to pick books that encourage self reflection in the reader. Max writes in his article that "[Oprah] wants to expose people to books that matter, books that in some way touch the self." He goes on to quote Oprah as saying that the reason she loves books is that "'they teach us something about ourselves.'" This criteria for books that touch people personally applies to Binchy's novel because she engages the reader in a way that both the pain and growth endured by her characters are experienced by the reader as well to a certain extent. The books do not encourage self reflection outright, but the realistic setting encourage more comparison to the reader's own life than a fantasy novel would. Max goes on to note that, like "Tara Road," many of the Oprah novels take place in small towns. The books are also similar to Binchy's in that most Oprah Book Club choices "tend to draw their themes from real life." (Max) It is clear that "Tara Road" fits the stereotypical category of books chosen for the Oprah Book Club.
Binchy is known for novels that do not sensationalize any part of life. The trademark absence of sex and violence in the novels is a point of pride for Binchy, and also serves to characterize the audience of her novels. In an interview for Publishers Weekly, Binchy tells how she has discovered that the audience of her novels "is grateful for the absence of sex and violence. They're people who like being able to buy a book that will suit their mothers and their children" (Weber). In keeping with this pattern, when questioned about the love scenes in the upcoming film version of Tara Road, Binchy emphasized that the sex would be implied rather than explicit. Her agent, Christine Green stated, "This is not going to be turned into a steaming sex movie?It is not a book about bonking and the film won't be about bonking either" (O'Hanlon). Binchy's novels tend to be read by older adult women, who read for themes of friendship and relationships than for sensationalized sex or violence. This audience is reflected in the publisher's early attempts to publicize the novel. All of the publicity was aimed at adult women. In the spring of 1999, "Tara Road" was one of six titles that had free excerpts included in packs of Diet Cokes. This was an appropriate place for the novel to be advertised because the target audience of Diet Coke was the same as the target audience for the novel. The spokesperson for the Diet Coke campaign, Diane Garza said that the company had done research to see what motivated Diet Coke consumers. The company found that the consumers were about 60% women (Dahlin). Garza stated that, "when we asked them what they liked to do, the number one answer from both men and women was: reading. We learned that they liked empowerment stories, stories about someone who overcomes a difficulty, someone who makes the most of life?" (Dahlin) The publishers also printed an excerpt of the novel in Good Housekeeping July 1999. This magazine is also aimed at adult women.
When "Tara Road" was published in America in March of 1999, Maeve Binchy had already written several successful novels. She was widely recognized as a successful, but not overly notable author. In his review in Booklist in December 1998, Brad Hooper wrote that Binchy "has forged a solid reputation with solid novels about domestic situations. Her latest work may not draw new readers, but her fans will find Binchy's talents undiminished." This opinion characterized the early reviews of the novel. "Tara Road" was reviewed as a novel that was just as good as her previous works, but was not expected to draw a large number of new readers. The novel was expected to be a success based on Binchy's previous fan base, but was not expected to draw many readers who were previously unfamiliar with her. However, "Tara Road" experienced much more success than was expected. It was on the bestsellers lists for 28 weeks, and sold over 950,000 copies in 1999 alone (Publisher's Weekly, April 10, 2000). The novel was propelled to success based on the publicity it received by being chosen as the 26th Oprah Book Club novel. Although Binchy was already a well known author when "Tara Road" was published, the book would not have been as successful as it was without the major publicity that it received.
The publicity created through the Oprah show helped to cement the public person Binchy had created through her previous magazine and newspaper interviews. Binchy is always portrayed as down to earth and ordinary. Her picture on the dust jacket of the novel is not glamorous, and the short biography in the back cover simply states that she lives in Dublin with her husband. The appearance on Oprah heightened the public's awareness of this persona, because the interview highlighted Binchy's down to earth writing and quality of life. Unlike other bestselling writers, like Danielle Steele, who are known for their elaborate mansions and style of living, Binchy is known for staying in the same unpretentious house.
The biggest impact of the Oprah phenomenon was on the sales of "Tara Road." Binchy's novel appeared on the bestseller lists in Publisher's Weekly as soon as the book was published in March of 1999. The book debuted in the #4 spot, and climbed as high as #2 in the first thirteen weeks it was on the bestseller lists. In the beginning of June, after thirteen weeks on the bestseller list, the book dropped out of the list. It did not appear again until after September 9, 1999, when Oprah announced that "Tara Road" was the 26th Oprah Book Club choice. By the September 20, 1999 bestseller list "Tara Road" was already back into the top ten, listed as #3. The book held the #2 bestselling spot for the weeks of September 27, 1999, and October 4, 1999. It then began to drop down but held its position in the bestseller lists for an additional 15 weeks. The book was on the bestseller list for a total of 28 weeks. Clearly, although Maeve Binchy had a draw of her own due to her former popularity, the publicity and endorsement by Oprah propelled the novel into the bestseller lists for twice as long as it would have been without the book club announcement.
"Tara Road" was popular and well written enough to enjoy success without Oprah's endorsement, but the choice of the book as the 26th Book Club choice greatly influenced the scope of that success. Binchy created a novel that allowed audiences to relate to the characters and escape from their everyday life, but Oprah helped Maeve Binchy to reach audiences who would not know who she was otherwise. The combination of the well written novel, Binchy's previous fan base and popularity, and Oprah's Book Club endorsement all came together to make this book a bestseller.
*Dahlin, Robert. "Diet Coke Hits the Books in a Big Way.(marketing campaign offers
book excerpts in packs of Diet Coke)." Publishers Weekly, Feb 1, 1999 v246 i5 p30(1).
* Hooper, Brad. "Tara Road. (Review)" Booklist, Dec 15, 1998 v95 i8 p706.
*"Maeve Binchy." http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-binchy-maeve.asp
*Max, D.T. "The Oprah Effect." The New York Times, December 26, 1999. Section 6, Page 36, Column 1.
*O'Hanlon, Eamonn. "No Sex Please We're Irish; Maeve Slaps Love Ban on
Movie of her Book." Sunday Mirror, January 14, 2001. News, Pg. 11.
*"Tara Road: Interview with the Author."
*"Tara Road." Good Housekeeping, July 1999 v229 i1 p159.
*Valle, Barbara. "Tara Road.(Review)" Library Journal, Sept 1, 1999 v124 i14 p252.
*Waldman, Amy. "Pages.(Picks & Pans)(Review)." People Weekly, April 12, 1999 v51 i13 p45+(1).
*Weber, Katharine. "Maeve Binchy: Ireland's bestselling author is refreshingly modest
about herself and her characters." Publishers Weekly, Oct 26, 1992 v239 n47 42(2).