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Touchy Subjects
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Touchy Subjects

3.6 3
by Emma Donoghue

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In this sparkling collection of nineteen stories, the bestselling author of Slammerkin returns to contemporary affairs, exposing the private dilemmas that result from some of our most public controversies. A man finds God and finally wants to father a child—only his wife is now forty-two years old. A coach’s son discovers his sexuality on the football


In this sparkling collection of nineteen stories, the bestselling author of Slammerkin returns to contemporary affairs, exposing the private dilemmas that result from some of our most public controversies. A man finds God and finally wants to father a child—only his wife is now forty-two years old. A coach’s son discovers his sexuality on the football field. A repressed young woman finds liberation in her roommate’s bizarre secret.

Many of these stories involve animals and what they mean to us, or babies and whether to have them; some reimagine biblical plots in modern contexts. With characters old, young, straight, gay, and simply confused, Donoghue dazzles with her range and her ability to touch lightly but penetrate deeply into the human condition.

Editorial Reviews

Miami Herald

"Virtually every tale in TOUCHY SUBJECTS is lucid, concise, clever and poignant. Roaming the globe, from many walks of life, bearing their painful and wonderful aspects alike, Donoghue's characters will remind readers of themselves in the here and now."
New York Times

"Lucid contemporary takes in a variety of styles, with humor ascendant." (Editors' Choice)
From the Publisher


"Lucid, concise, clever and poignant. Roaming the globe, from many walks of life, bearing their painful and wonderful aspects alike, Donoghue’s characters will remind readers of themselves in the here and now."—THE MIAMI HERALD

"Touchy Subjects parades a variety of styles, but I’d say Donoghue’s greatest talent is for humor . . . Written over a number of years, these stories demonstrate considerable versatility."—THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

New York Times - Tibor Fischer

"All of Donoghue's stories are lucid and well paced...written over a number of years, these stories demonstrate considerable versatility...It's evident she likes her characters, and you probably will too."
Publishers Weekly
In contrast to previous books focused on feminist retellings of fairy tales (Kissing the Witch) and revisionist imaginings of historical and folkloric female figures (The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits), Irish writer Donoghue's latest, a set of 19 witty tales, remains firmly planted in Ireland's present. Divided into five sections-"Babies," "Domesticity," "Strangers," "Desire," "Death"-the book has one unifying theme: the characters' constant need for revision-of assumptions, perceptions and expectations-in light of new information. In "Expecting," a woman re-evaluates her maternal instincts when a stranger misinterprets her condition. Elsewhere, a heartbroken young woman uses a trip abroad to indulge her fantasies of being Catherine Deneuve or Isadora Duncan, but discovers true healing in a more unlikely incarnation. In "The Sanctuary of Hands," a bitter, washed-up writer finds true genius during his yearlong residency, but not in the way he expected. Throughout, Donoghue offers deadpan asides about the trappings of the recent boom times in Ireland. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Among the touchy subjects that Donoghue (Slammerkin) deals with in this wonderfully wide-ranging collection are childbirth and parenting, homelessness and special needs, and the ultimate touchy subject, death. Set on both sides of the Atlantic, the collection opens with a story about a funny series of mishaps that occurs when a devoted family man arrives at a posh hotel where he has agreed to be a sperm donor for an old friend of his wife. The wry comic undertone continues through the hilarious "Do They Know It's Christmas?" about an academic couple's fanatic devotion to their dogs, Gide, Mallarm , and Proust, and their outrage over the banning of their darlings from the family Christmas gathering and again in "WritOr," in which a writer-in-residence at a small community college encounters an endless stream of colossally untalented writers. Equally adept at poignancy, Donoghue evokes sympathy for a woman past her childbearing years whose husband suddenly finds God and a late-blooming desire to have a family in "The Man Who Wrote on Beaches." There are no weak links in this collection, which should find a home in all public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of two intelligent, atmospheric historical novels, Slammerkin (2001) and Life Mask (2004), reapplies her sharp eye to the contemporary world in 19 engaging short stories. How we live today is not a new subject for Donoghue, whose early fiction includes the coming-of-age tale Stir-Fry (1994) and an elegiac portrait of a long-term lesbian romance (Hood, 1996). Same-sex affairs and general gender confusion remain fruitful topics for the author's unsentimental probing in such stories as "Team Men," "Speaking in Tongues" and "The Welcome"-the latter also geing a very funny portrait of politically correct collective life in a women's commune. But just as Donoghue can rove from the historic to the modern world, she matches the acuity of her looks at homosexual relations with her astuteness about heterosexual families ("Through the Night"), the longing for a baby (the hilarious title story and "The Man Who Wrote on Beaches") and people's obsessive devotion to their pets ("Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "The Cost of Things"). Not that these stories can be categorized under a single category heading; they're too multifaceted, too cognizant of the complexity of human nature for that. Donoghue has the born storyteller's knack for sketching a personality and pulling readers into a plot in just a few pages, and she confidently changes scenes from her native Ireland to her current home in Canada or America's West Coast without ever losing her ability to evoke authentic emotions and landscapes. Most impressive of all is her gentleness toward her characters: "WritOr," the chronicle of a Writer-in-Residence's bleak sojourn to a small-town college contains some of the funniest, saddestdescriptions ever of people's pathetic delusions of literary grandeur, concluding with someone of genuine talent turning up in the writer's office, leaving him "dangling somewhere between hope and despair."Delightful examples of Donoghue's all-encompassing talent that should be read by fans of her period pieces as well as her gay audience-indeed, by anyone who cherishes thoughtful, warm-hearted fiction.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Touchy Subjects

By Donoghue, Emma


Copyright © 2006 Donoghue, Emma
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0151013861

Touchy Subjects

Sarah's eyes were as dry as paper. Jet lag always made her feel ten years older. She stared past the blond chignon of the receptionist in Finbar's Hotel. Twenty to one, according to the clock on the right. One take away eight was minus seven. No, try again. Thirteen take away eight was five. Twenty to five, Seattle time. Morning or evening? Wednesday or Thursday?
She shut her eyes and told herself not to panic. A day either way would make no difference. Please let it not make any difference.
"Ms. Lord?" The Germanic receptionist was holding out the key.
Sarah took it and tried to smile. There were four different clocks behind the desk, she realized now. The one she'd been reading was New York, not Dublin. So here the time was a quarter to six, but according to her body clock it was . . .
Forget it.
Bag in hand, she stumbled across the marble floor towards the lifts.
A young assistant porter in Edwardian stripes brought up her double espresso ten minutes later. Sarah felt better as soon as she smelt it. She even flirted with the boy a little. Just a matter of "That was quick," and a tilt of the eyebrows, just to shake herself awake. He answered very perkily.
Even if, to a boy like that, thirty-eight probably seemed like ninety.Every little hormone helps.
Her heart thudded as the caffeine hit home. She dragged the chair over to the window; sunlight was the best cure for jet lag. Not that there was ever much sunlight to catch in Ireland, but at least it was a clear evening. Her eyes rested on the long glitter of the river as she drained her espresso. Time was you couldn't even have got a filter coffee in Dublin; this town had certainly come on. You could probably get anything you needed now if you paid enough. She winced at the thought: too close to home.
Knotted into the starchy robe, she flexed her feet on the pale red-and-black carpet and considered the dress spread out on the bed. She knew it was comical, but she couldn't decide what to wear. This was a big night, most definitely, but not the kind of occasion covered in the book on manners her mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. (Sarah still kept it on her cookery-book shelf in Seattle; guests found it hilarious.) Whatever she wore tonight had to be comfortable, but with a bit of glamour to keep her spirits up. Back home, this sleeveless dress in cream linen had seemed perfect, but now it was creased in twenty places. Like her face.
Sarah was tempted to keep on the dressing gown, but it might frighten Padraic. She wished she knew him better. Why hadn't she paid him a bit more attention at all those Christmas do's? She was sure there was a chapter on that in her etiquette manual: Take the trouble to talk to everyone in the room. Last year her entire corporation had undergone a weekend's training in power networking, which boiled down to the same thing, with motives bared. Work the party. You never know when someone might turn out to be useful.
Was she using Padraic? Was that what it all amounted to?
No more bloody ethical qualms, Sarah reminded herself. This was the only way to get what she wanted. What she needed. What she deserved, as much as the next woman, anyway.
The dress was impossible; it would make her look like cracked china. She pulled the purple suit she'd traveled in back on; now she was herself again. Cross-legged on the bed, she waited for her heartbeat to slow down. Six twenty. That was OK; Padraic was only five minutes late. All she wanted was to lie down, but a nap would be fatal.
There was that report on internal communications she was meant to be reading, but in this condition she wouldn't make any sense of it. She stretched for the remote and flicked through the channels. How artistic the ads were, compared with back home in Seattle. Sarah paused at some sort of mad chat show hosted by a computer. Was that Irish the children were talking? How very odd.
Please let him not be very late.
The Irish were always bloody late.

Padraic was relieved that Finbar's Hotel was way down on the quays opposite Heuston Station, where he was unlikely to bump into anyone he knew. He stood outside for a minute and gawked up at the glistening balconies. He remembered it when there was only a peeling facade, before that Dutch rock star and his Irish wife had bought it up. What would it cost, a night in one of those tastefully refurbished rooms? It was a shame all the yuppies had to look down on was the Liffey.
The first things he noticed when the doors slid open were the white sofas, lined up like a set of teeth. Ludicrous-- they'd be black in a month. Padraic grinned to himself now to relax his jaw. Greg in marketing had this theory about all tension and pain originating in the back teeth.
Padraic was the kind of man who always wore his wedding ring, and it hadn't occurred to him to take it off. But as he stood at the desk and asked the receptionist whether Ms. Lord had checked in yet, he thought he saw her eyes flicker to his hand. He almost gave in to a silly impulse to put it behind his back. Instead, he tugged at the neck of the Breton fisherman's jumper he had changed into after work.
The receptionist had the phone pressed to her ear now. She sounded foreign, but he couldn't tell from where. What was keeping Sarah? What possible hitch could there be?
Poor woman, he thought, for the twentieth time. To have to stoop to this.
He leapt. He felt his whole spine lock into a straight line. Then he turned. "Maire, how are you! You look stunning! I don't think I've seen you since Granny's funeral. Didn't I hear you were in England?" The words were exploding from his mouth like crumbs.
His cousin gave him a Continental-style peck on the cheek. "I'm only back a month."
Her badge said MAIRE DERMOTT, RECEPTION MANAGER. He jabbed a finger at it. "You're doing well for yourself." If he kept talking, his cousin couldn't ask him what he was doing here.
"Oh, early days," she said.
"It all looks fabulous, anyway," he said, wheeling round and waving at the snowy couches, the bright paintings, the rows of tiny lamps hanging like daggers overhead. He edged away from the desk, where the receptionist had got Sarah on the phone at last.
"So how's Carmel?" asked MAire. "And the boys?" Padraic was about to give a full report on his respectable family life when the receptionist leaned over the desk. "Excuse me, Mr. Dermott. If you'd be so good as to go up now, the room is 101. And please tell Ms. Lord that the champagne is on its way."
He offered MAire a ghastly smile. "Friend of Carmel's."
His cousin's face had suddenly shut down. She looked as snotty as when they were children doing Christmas pantomimes and she always made him play the ox.
Padraic gave a merry little wave of the fingers. "Catch you later," he said, backing away.
On the way to the lifts Padraic glanced into the establishment designated as the Irish Bar, which looked just like the one he and Carmel had stumbled across in Athens. He pressed repeatedly on the lift button, then put his hand against his hot face. It was god's own truth, what he'd told his cousin about Sarah being a friend of Carmel's. But it was also, under the circumstances, the worst possible thing to say. His father's side of the family were notorious gossips. Once again, Padraic Dermott had dug himself a pit with his own big mouth.
Copyright 2006 by Emma Donoghue
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Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


Excerpted from Touchy Subjects by Donoghue, Emma Copyright © 2006 by Donoghue, Emma. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

New York Times
"Lucid contemporary takes in a variety of styles, with humor ascendant." (Editors'' Choice)

Meet the Author

Born in Ireland, Emma Donoghue spent many years in England and now lives in Canada. She is the author of Slammerkin as well as two other novels, a collection of short stories, and a collection of fairy tales. Her novels have been translated into eight languages.

Brief Biography

London, England and Ontario, Canada
Date of Birth:
October 24, 1969
Place of Birth:
Dublin, Ireland
B.A. in English and French, University College Dublin, 1990; Ph.D. in English, University of Cambridge, 1998

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