My Dream of You

My Dream of You

by Nuala O'Faolain


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A New York Times notable book and bestseller, this debut novel from Irish Times columnist Nuala O'Faolain takes on life and love with Dickensian flair and the striking intimacy that characterized her bestselling and acclaimed memoir, Are You Somebody?

Set in Ireland and spanning a century and a half, My Dream of You unfolds the compelling stories of two women and their quests for passion, connection, and fulfillment.  A globetrotting Irish travel writer, Kathleen de Burca is used to living—and loving—on the run. On the brink of fifty, she decides to leave her job and rethink her life. Intrigued by a divorce case dating back to the days of the Potato Famine, she tries hand at writing about it. The case, called "The Talbot Affair," detailed the clandestine liaison between the wife of a British landlord and an Irish servant in Ireland in the 1850s. After a bitter thirty-year absence, Kathleen returns to Ireland, the land of her troubled childhood and turbulent heritage, in search of answers to her questions about desire and lasting love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573229081
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2002
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 544
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nuala O'Faolainis a columnist withThe Irish Times and the author of Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman.  She lives in Dublin and County Clare. My Dream of You is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


By the time I was middle-aged I was well defended against crisis, if it came from outside. I had kept my life even and dry for a long time. I'd been the tenant of a dim basement, half-buried at he back of the Euston Road, for more than twenty years. I didn't like London particularly, except for the TravelWrite office, but I didn't see much of it. Jimmy and I, who were the main writers for the travel section of the NewsWrite syndicate, were on the move all the time. We were never what you'd call explorers; we never went anywhere near war or hunger or even discomfort. And we wrote about every place we went to in a cheerful way: that was the house rule. But we had a good boss. Even if it was the fifth "Paris in Springtime" or the third "Sri Lanka: Isle of Spices," Alex wouldn't let us get away with tired writing. Sometimes Jimmy accused him of foolish perfectionism, because every TravelWrite piece was bought immediately anyway. But having to please Alex was good for us. And then, people do read travel material in a cheerful frame of mind, imagining themselves at leisure and the world at its best. It's an intrinsically optimistic thing, travel. Partly because of that, but mostly because Alex went on caring, I liked my work.

I even liked the basement, in a way, in the end. I don't suppose more than a handful of people ever visited it, in all the time I was there. Jimmy was my close friend and since he'd come to Travel-Write from America he'd lived twenty minutes away, in Soho, but we'd never been inside each other's places. It was understood that if one of us said they were going home, the other didn't ask any questions. Once, early on, he said he was going home, and I happened to see, from the top of the bus, that he had stopped a taxi and was in fact going in the opposite direction. After that, I deliberately didn't look around when we parted. Anyway, my silent rooms were never sweetened by the babble the two of us had perfected over the years. And for a long time, there hadn't been anyone there in the morning when I woke up. Sex was a hotel thing. I don't think I'd have liked to disturb the perfect nothingness of where I lived.

Then a time came when I began to lose control of the evenness and the dryness.

I was waiting for my bag in the arrivals hall at Harare airport when I fell into conversation with the businessman in the exquisite suit who was waiting beside me. Favorite airlines, we were chatting about.

Royal Thai executive class is first-rate, he said.

Ah, don't tell me you fall for all that I-am-your-dusky-handmaiden stuff, I laughed at him.

Those girls really know how to please, he went on earnestly, as if I hadn't spoken at all. And there was a porter with gnarled bare feet asleep on the baggage belt, and when it started with a jolt the poor old man fell off in front of us, and all the businessman did was step back in distaste and then take out a handkerchief and flick it across the glossy toe caps of his shoes as if they'd been polluted. But I accepted his offer of a lift into town, all the same. We were stopped for a moment at a traffic light beside a bar that was rocking with laughter and drumming.

They're very musical, the Africans, he said. Great sense of rhythm.

Just what are you doing, I asked myself, with Mr. Dull here?

I half-knew; no, quarter-knew. But if nothing more had happened I would never have given it a conscious thought.

Men can't allow themselves that vagueness. At his hotel he said, Would you like to come in for a drink? Or would you like to come up to the room while I freshen up? I've rather a good single malt in my bag.

I propped myself against the headrest of his big bed and sipped the Scotch and watched him deploy his neat things-his papers, his radio, his toiletries. When he came out of the bathroom with his shirt off and the top of his trousers open, I was perfectly ready to kiss and embrace. I was dead tired. I'd had a drink. I was completely alone in a foreign country. I was morethan willing to hand myself over to someone else.

But very soon I was frowning behind his corpse-white back.

If only I knew how to take charge of this myself, I thought. If I could be the real thing myself, I could bring him with me. . . .

I honestly don't know how any person could make as little of the living body as that man did. Even the best I could do hardly made him exclaim. But he seemed to be delighted with the two of us, afterwards. At least I thought he was. He invited me to have dinner with him the next night, and I accepted, though I didn't much want to struggle through hours of trying to make conversation. I was in a great humor when he saw me into a taxi.

It had been human contact, hadn't it? I was a generous woman, wasn't I, if I was nothing else? I hummed as I hung my clothes in the wardrobe of my mock-Tudor guesthouse, under huge jacaranda trees that in the streetlights looked as if their swathes of blossom were black. My favorite thing: a hotel bedroom in a new place.

The phone rang. It was Alex to say that he needed Zimbabwe wildlife copy within forty-eight hours.

I suppose you think that elephants and giraffes just walk around downtown Harare like people do in London? I shouted sarcastically down the phone. I suppose you think they have a game park in this guesthouse where I have just arrived. Then I hung up.

When the phone rang again I picked up, ready to do a deal about the deadline. But it was the businessman.

How are you, my little Irish kitten? he said. I am thinking of you.

Oh, really? I said, embarrassed. Kitten. I was forty-nine.

Unfortunately, he said, I must go out of town.

One hour after I'd been with him! He hadn't even waited till the next day.

And that's what I learned from him-that my heart was still ridiculously alive. I was sincerely hurt. What had I done wrong? I actually swallowed back tears.

And then, he continued, I must go directly back to my office.

There was nothing between the man and me-nothing, not even liking. But because of the memory of some wholeness, or the hope of some regeneration, I would have dropped whatever I'd planned, just to go back to scratching around on his bed.

I cannot go on like this, I said to myself. Tears!

I went on to the east a few days later to do a quick piece about a hot springs resort in the Philippines. I went straight to the famous waterfall, and though the humid, grayish air smelled like weeds rotting in mud and there were boys everywhere along the paths between the flowering trees, begging, or offering them-selves as guides, it was possible to see that this was a marvelous spot, with hummingbirds sipping from the green pools that trembled under each fall before silently overflowing and sliding down the smooth rock to the next terrace. It was going to be easy to put a positive spin on the place. I made notes and took photos of the birds for identification, and then I got a bus to Manila. It arrived in the sweltering heat and dust of the evening rush. My hotel was on the far side of a busy dual carriageway. I started across the road, and reached the road divider where there was a bit of a dust-covered low hedge. A small hand came out of the hedge. I bent down. Two dirty-faced girls of seven or eight had a box under the hedge with an infant sleeping in it.

Dollar! the girl said. Then she stood on the road divider with the traffic going past on both sides and lifted the skirt of her ragged frock and pushed her delicate pelvis in threadbare panties forward. I didn't know what she meant, and maybe she didn't, either.

What money I had in my pockets I gave her, and then, instead of checking in to the hotel I got a taxi to the airport, looking neither left nor right.

There are children living in the middle of the road, I said.

Yes, the driver said. The country people come to town and they live in the street.

There was silence. He flicked on a Petula Clark tape.

After he took my money, outside departures, he said, We don't need no fuckin' grief from some old bitch.

—from My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain, Copyright © February 2002, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission."

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A grand achievement in storytelling… A lovely heartbreaker of a novel that asks the hard questions.”—USA Today

“Ingeniously explores the consuming power of both passion and the past.”—Entertainment Weekly

“What a pleasure it is to be able to open a book and relax into the flow of a beautifully written narrative…With an ambling, intimate candor, O’Faolain tells Kathleen’s story, present and past…And always, of course, behind everything is Ireland itself—beautiful, maddening Ireland.”—Lynn Freed, Washington Post Book World

“A big, generous, essentially old-fashioned novel, taking its unhurried time to tell a story and create a central character, to have a cool, long look at history and romance…There is tenderness here, and humanity, and a persuasive account of what happens when a person allows the world to enter into her once more.”—Catherine Lockerbie, The New York Times Book Review

“O’Faolain is] a reader’s writer, with a flair for straightforward, Dickensian storytelling.”—Meghan O’Rourke, Vogue

“Full of brilliant writing and heartbreaking insight…Unlike all but the best writers, O’Faolain isn’t afraid to write about a character as smart and complicated as she is.”—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“A smart and crisply written book, tinged with sadness…Kathleen’s journey back to one of Ireland’s humbler backwaters after a fashionable life as a near-English traveling journalist is fraught with emotion and politics. Indeed, one of the achievements of this lovely, haunting, and intelligent novel is demonstrating how tightly these elements are linked in the modern Irish – not only in the manner that makes international news, but at the levels that give color and shape to an individual’s everyday life.”—Vince Passaro, Elle

“What keeps you engrossed is the fact that the novel interweaves the contemporary bits…with an irresistible mystery…I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that so eloquently describes the erotic dilemma of middle age—the way that hunger for sexual and emotional satisfaction, unabated by time, intersects with a shocked recognition that the body itself changes, or even fails…It is [O’Faolain’s] journalistic eye for detail that etches Kathleen’s dilemma into your memory.”—Daniel Mendelsohn, New York

Reading Group Guide

What gives a life meaning? How is love found? Nuala O'Faolain, noted Irish Times columnist, took on these questions with striking intimacy and candor in her bestselling and acclaimed memoir, Are You Somebody? Hailed as "a beautiful exploration of human loneliness and happiness, of contentment and longing" (Alice McDermott, The Washington Post), the book struck a chord with legions of readers on both sides of the Atlantic and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. My Dream of You followed her memoir's path, hitting bestseller lists around the world and confirming O'Faolain's remarkable gifts as a writer.

Set in Ireland and spanning a century-and-a-half, My Dream of You unfolds the compelling stories of two women and their quests for passion, connection, and fulfillment. On the brink of fifty, Kathleen de Burca is looking back at her life and asking questions about her choices. A globetrotting staff writer for the London-based TravelWrite syndicate for more than twenty years, she is used to livingand lovingon the run. Since the age of twenty-three, when she betrayed her first meaningful intimate relationship, she has had a steady succession of brief encounters, which have become less satisfying and more humiliating with each passing year. After a quick round of blowsculminating with the sudden death of her cherished colleague and closest friendKathleen decides to leave her job and rethink her life. Intrigued by a divorce case dating back to the days of the Potato Famine, she decides to try her hand at writing about it. The case, called "The Talbot Affair," detailed the clandestine liaison lasting three years between the wife of a British landlord and an Irish servant in Ireland in the 1850s. After a bitter thirty-year absence, Kathleen returns to Ireland, the land of her troubled childhood and turbulent heritage, in search of answers to her questions about desire and lasting love.

A contemporary story wrapped around an actual event, both equally gripping, My Dream of You is rich in timeless and relevant truths about adversity and human nature, passion and true love. Having created two complex, deeply feeling women at the mercy of their times and circumstances, and forced to make difficult choices, Nuala O'Faolain proves she is as gifted and powerful a weaver of fiction as she is an observer and chronicler of real life.



Born in Dublin, Ireland, the second eldest of nine children of a journalist who became Ireland's first 'social' columnista gentler Walter Winchell or Nigel Dempsterwho for years wrote a newspaper Dubliner's Diary about the goings-on around town the night before. This occupation meant he was rarely available to his wife and family, and over timeas touched on in Nuala O'Faolain's autobiographical essay, Are You Somebody?his wife, Nuala's mother Catherine, became more and more lonely and sunk in alcoholism, and the home and the children became more neglected. The family lived in various cheap rented houses up and down the line of the railway out of Dublin and from time to time, like something out of a fairytale, the glamorous father would descend from a train.

Nuala, aged 14, was a gifted but almost out-of-control girl, sneaking out at night to go to dancehalls with men and women much older than herself. The nuns at her convent school asked her parents to remove her, and in an uncharacteristic burst of attentiveness they found the money and made the arrangements to send her away to boarding-school where she spent the rest of her school years. At this remote, Irish-speaking convent, she began to achieve academic success and to convert the turbulent impulses that had got her into so much trouble at puberty into an intellectual and an emotional life.

At 18 she went to university in Dublin on a coveted entrance scholarship. But the freedom of Dublin city and new interestslove, left-wing politics, drinkingunbalanced her again, and she dropped out of college and had to go to England, to worklike many penniless Irish at the timeat various unskilled jobs. She was saved from this being a permanent fate by the kindness of some older people in Dublin who watched over her and lent her money to pay her fees while trying to complete her degree.

She did this with distinction, and over the next few years also got a scholarship to the University of Hull in England where she read medieval literature; returned to Dublin and got a qualification in French, and an M.A; and finally won a travelling studentship, which she took up at the University of Oxford where, in the late sixties, she got a post-graduate degreea B.Phil.mainly in nineteenth-century literature.

Oxford University in the late sixties was still beautiful and unspoiled by tourists, and because of the Beatles and Lucky Jimand Carnaby Street, working-class students, and even plebeian outsiders like the Irish, were in fashion. After three marvellous years it was a difficult transition to return to Dublin to become a lecturer at U.C.D.not least because of an on-again off-again engagement to an English writer. The next ten years were unsettled by this relationship, which in the end came to nothing.

To be near this man, Nuala O'Faolain moved to London to become a producer with the BBC, making television and radio programmes for the first years of the arts faculty of the Open University. Then she became one of the first team making 'access' programmes for BBC television and then made programmes from Northern Ireland for a BBC Further Education series. This decade was one of constant travel and learning, for a BBC still perfectly self-confident. Nuala O'Faolain also reviewed books for the London Times during this period; was a guest lecturer in Indiana and many other places, was seconded to Teheran for the planning of an Iranian 'open university' in the last year of the Shah's reign, taught occasional evening classes in Morley College, etc.

She began to visit the west of Ireland on holiday and to become, for the first time, interested in the Irish language and Irish traditional music and song and dance, and Irish social history. And the day she realized that the place she liked best in London was London Airport she gave up on England, and returned to Ireland, getting work as a television producer in the current affairs section of Radio Telefis Eireann, and also reviewing and lecturing extensively. When a new university was set up in Dublin she took a year's leave of absence and taught Media Studies. She became one of an all-woman team who made a weekly woman's programmea first on Irish televisionand also made a series with older women, called 'Plain Tales,' where 'ordinary' women told the stories of their extraordinary lives. This won the award for television programme of the year. Soon afterwards, Nuala O'Faolain was invited to become an opinion columnist for The Irish TimesIreland’s leading newspaper. The next year she won the annual award for journalist of the year.

For the last twelve years, she has been with The Irish Times, primarily as a columnist but also writing features from Africa, the United States and all over Europe, andtaking up residence in Belfast for almost a yearfrom Northern Ireland. She also presented a television books programme, a series of radio interviews, reviewed for magazines and so on.

In 1996 a small Irish publisher brought out a selection of her opinion columns, and she offered to write an introduction to them. The introduction, unexpectedly, and uncalledfor, grew and grew as she wrote it. She wrote it for herselflooking back over a life which had always been difficult and lonely on a personal level, in an attempt to accept that her promise had come to nothing, and that now, in her fifties, she had no accomplishments to show, no partner, no childrenno company of friends, even, at times like Christmasand that she must say goodbye to hope. The book of journalism with this introduction had a very small print run and came out quietly, with no launch, no review copies sent out, no advertising, etc. But when she talked about it on television it became an instant bestseller in Irelandselling, indeed, so fast that in many bookshops it was sold from boxes, because the staff hadn't time to put it on shelves.

It turned out that the introductionquickly reprinted as a book in its own right, called Are You Somebody?sounded some tone which men and women everywhere could respond to. This note sounded even across barriers of age and culture and experience. The autobiographical essay of an obscure Irish journalist eventually spent many weeks on the bestseller list ofThe New York Times, reached number three in Australia, and did very well in the UK and Germany and Sweden. It didn't change Nuala's private life, but it brought her loving responses from all over the world.

Because of the autobiography's success approaches were made to her for her 'next book.' She protested that she was not a writer of booksthat she didn't look on Are You Somebody? as a book, and had no plans at all to write anything else. But gradually, the idea of trying to write a fiction became irresistible. To do this, she took leave of absence from the Irish newspaper, and moved to America where the culture is so much more hospitable than Ireland's to believing that dreams can come true and late attempts succeed. In the nurturing artists' colony of Yaddo she wrote the beginning of a novel about a middle-aged Irishwoman coming to terms with the role of passion in her own life, through a contemplation of a disastrousreal-lifepassionate affair that took place 150 years ago in an Ireland devastated by the potato famine. Then she went to New York and showed what she'd written to an agent. The agent took her and the pages around a number of publishing houses. Various bids were made: within weeks a contract had been signed with Riverhead books for the completed novel, to be delivered a year later.

Then began what for Nuala was one of her life's happiest adventures. She had a one-room apartment in Manhattan, the company of a little cat rescued from a shelter, and a laptop, and over one fall and winter, and generously helped by her agent and her supportive editor at Riverhead, she wrote My Dream of You.

Change has come about so quickly, since the day she sat at her kitchen table to begin telling herself the story of her life, that she can still hardly believe it. 'Isn't it extraordinary!' she said the other day, when she was having a coffee with some of her sisters and her brother. 'Me, at my age, writing a novel!' There's nothing extraordinary about it, they said. 'Do you not remember?' they said. 'When we were kids and we all slept in the same bed? You wouldn't let us go asleep. You made us stay awake every night to listen to your stories....'


  • "I knew all about the act of love as a non-event," Kathleen de Burca says, "but I still believed it was the act in which one person can truly learn another, and truly build on what they learn." (p. 64) In what ways has this belief affected her relationships with lovers over the course of her life? Does she still believe this at the end of the book? Why or why not?
  • What does Kathleen's relationship with Caro reveal about her character? What about her friendship with Alex? With Jimmy? How does each person affect Kathleen's sense of herself?
  • The loss of Jimmy is the catalyst for Kathleen's return to Ireland. In what ways does his death challenge her perception of herself as "well defended against crisis, if it came from outside"? (p.7) What is she guarding herself against? What are her vulnerabilities?
  • Why is the story of the Talbot affair so compelling to the young Kathleen? Does she return to it in middle age for the same or different reasons?
  • "I think they were perhaps the happiest people in Europe, for a while...They had the old faith," Miss Leech tells Kathleen (p. 70). What role does Irish Catholic faith play in Kathleen's present life? What about her past?
  • "The country I was driving through was only a green space. I didn't care anymore what was outside," Kathleen says. (p. 490) Discuss the changing role of landscape throughout the novel. How does Mount Talbot of Marianne's time compare to Kathleen's basement apartment? What part of Kathleen's identity is linked to her travels? What about her experience of the cottage at Mellary? Her return to Uncle Ned's home?
  • To what extent does Kathleen know herself through her body? Has her perception of herself been changed by her affair with Shay? How or how not?
  • "We're middle-aged women now and we have to forgive the pastfor our own sakes," Kathleen tells her sister. (p. 498) What has led her to this conclusion? Has Kathleen come to terms with her own aging? Why or why not?
  • "I could choose what to believe about the Talbot scandal. I would choose what to believe." Kathleen says near the end of her journey. (p. 486) What stake has she placed in her passionate imagining of the two lovers? What forces have shaped her thinking about the Talbots at this point? Have her assumptions about romantic love been challenged or reinforced by her journey home? By her affair with Shay? Discuss.
  • Discuss the various ways in which women's roles are presented in the novel. How do the mothers in the story (Kathleen's mother, Caro, Annie, Ella) compare with Kathleen? How is she challenged by the women in her life as compared to the men?
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