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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
A bittersweet, beautifully written novel, My Dream of You follows the international success of Irish Times journalist Nuala O'Faolain's bestselling memoir, Are You Somebody? and its frank account of the author's search for love in middle age. My Dream of You, O'Faolain's eagerly anticipated foray into fiction, is the story of Kathleen de Burca, a successful travel writer living in London, whose life is shaken when her best friend, Jimmy, dies of a heart attack.
Nearing 50 years old, with few friends and no family of her own, Kathleen returns home to Ireland for the first time in 30 years to pursue the 150-year-old story of an English lady and her illicit affair with an Irish groomsman during the Potato Famine. While researching the story, Kathleen begins a romance with a married Irishman named Shay, who is on respite from his own self-imposed exile in England. She and her lover cling together in a rented cottage, with the imminent end of their affair hanging over their heads. She wonders if he is her last chance at love.
Kathleen starts to write a fictional version of the Famine affair. But the straightforward Lady Chatterly-like tale takes a bizarre turn when it turns out the English lady, Mrs. Talbot, may have actually been innocent of adultery -- or was, at any rate, sleeping with someone other than the groom. In this novel-within-a-novel, O'Faolain explores the horrors of the Famine, where entire villages perished while English landlords in Ireland continued to export grain, and where, for a lucky few, the only tickets out were on coffin ships to America and Australia. For her part, Kathleen must decide whether to stay with her married man or go back to her lonely, solitary life in London. As the novel moves along, she begins to find clues that may fill holes in the mysterious Famine romance.
Modern Ireland is fraught with painful personal and historical memories for Kathleen. Her childhood was emotionally barren. She is an outsider wherever she goes. As a returnee to her home country, she doesn't fit in. In London, she is subject to anti-Irish bigotry. She looks back with numbness at her many empty sexual encounters -- the casual betrayal that ended her only true love affair, the anonymous men in hotel rooms around the world. O'Faolain carefully selects which stories from her past to tell, languidly building up the intensity of her longing and sadness by recalling a rare happy memory of her dour father or the painful, cruel silences she endured from her mother.
My Dream of You is a subtle, aching novel that explores Kathleen's longing for love, her inability to make long-term commitments, and the painful ambivalence of the exile at home. As in Are You Somebody?, O'Faolain manages to be lyrical without being melodramatic. Her gifts as a writer extend from her descriptions of the Irish seashore, where you can taste the salty air, to quirky descriptions of small-town Irish life, where the sad history of the Famine is just below the surface. Kathleen's desire to be loved is contrasted with her refusal to speak with self-pity. Indeed, despite her desire, Kathleen's refusal to open up may be the very thing that sabotages her own romantic possibilities. O'Faolain's great achievement in the novel is to have made Kathleen a flesh-and-blood woman with the churning of fate in her stomach and a palpable sensuality in her heart. (Dylan Foley)
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.