My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Rating: 4.5

dream My Dream Of You
 Author: Nuala O’Faolain
 Reader: Dearbhla Molloy
 Short Review: A beautiful first novel from one of Ireland’s best memoir and non-fiction writers, gorgeously read by Dublin’s excellent Dearbhla Molloy with just the right accent and diction. The novel interlaces a story of a woman approaching menopause while re-awakening her sense of romance, rethinking her career and life, and writing historical fiction for the first time. It’s about love, aging, Ireland, England, the Irish diaspora, feminism, sex, travel, religion, family, and lots of other things that matter.

Long Review: I’m guessing a lot of readers aren’t familiar with either O’Faolain or Molloy, and that breaks my heart. Molloy is an accomplished Irish actress who established her career at the Abbey and Gate Theaters in Dublin, went on the the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then became one of the go-to actors for Brian Friel’s plays. Her voice, diction, accent, and performance are ideal for Kathleen, the speaker and protagonist.

O’Faolain, an Irish journalist, rose to prominence by publishing her first memoir, Are You Somebody? She shocked the remaining traditionalists in Ireland with the book by openly speaking of her bisexuality, her sexual freedom, her break from the church, and so much else that so many people were expected to leave in the closet at home. Sadly, we won’t have the chance to hear much more from O’Faolain. She died this May of cancer, having published her two memoirs, the engrossing The Story of Chicago May, and this lovely novel.

The book is told in the voice of Caitlin de Burca/Kathleen Burke, an ex-pat Irish travel writer living in London; questioning her career and personal life; dealing with various griefs; researching an obscure bit of Irish history, and trying to use it as the basis for her first historical novel. Kathleen’s best friend dies, and she finds herself lonely, separated from family, and essentially anchorless. She decides to go home to Ireland and research a sensational upper-class divorce case that took place in the wake of the potato famine. During her research, she winds up befriending a bristly small-town librarian, an innkeeper and his family, and a married middle-aged ex-pat who becomes her lover.

As the novel progresses, O’Faolain includes excerpts from the book her protagonist is writing. Through these, and through Kathleen’s own thoughts and discussions of sexual mores, adultery, pregnancy, motherhood, and love, we get an interesting view of women’s sexuality in Ireland over more than a century. One of the things I found particularly touching about the book is that Kathleen is open about her own transgressions against friends, family members, and fidelity itself. She doesn’t make excuses for her behavior, but does look into its genesis. That is still a rare thing in literary fiction. We live in a world that still pillories sexually transgressive women, and Ireland is perhaps even more judgmental about women’s promiscuity than the US is, if that’s possible. O’Faolain’s plot breaks from that arc. Instead, Kathleen thinks about her relationship to men and transgression and chooses a path for herself.

I always favor authors who sketch flawed but lovable characters, and O’Faolain is certainly in that camp. Add to that her decision to write about Ireland, passion between middle-aged–and even elderly–characters, historical research, and about the state of Irish women’s rights over the last century and a half and you get a novel tailor made for, well, me. Thanks Nuala O’Faolain–you have given me yet another wonderful gift through your writing. I will cherish it. And I will miss you–you were a gem.


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