Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You (Penguin, 464 pages) is a coming-of-middle-age tale about Irish women across decades looking for “something to love.” While the novel is overtly about passion, it also explores the meaning of coming home and leaving it, of familial ties, of friendship, and, most poignantly, of growing older. Fiftyish Kathleen de Burca finds herself bereft and alone when her best friend Jimmy dies, and she begins to question the choices she has made. A persistent memory of a former lover and his “gift” to her of court documents prompt her to quit her job as a travel writer and to research the scandalous affair between a married Englishwoman and her Irish groom, an event that occurred during the Irish Potato Famine. Kathleen arrives on Irish soil after a long, stubborn absence, and there, she begins to open up, to understand matters of love and passion, to grasp the significance of her childhood, to give meaning to what it means to be Irish.
O’Faolain’s prose is lyrical, though sometimes overwrought, and its cadences propel this essentially quiet story. The historical side of the book, that of the principals in the Talbot Judgment, lends texture to the present day story, although the story itself is not as compelling as it could be, especially when Kathleen recreates it as fiction. O’Faolain’s unflinching descriptions of the realities of the aging body and its desires give this novel a freshness and an honesty. The psychology of the protagonist is revealed with equal candor.
My Dream of You should appeal largely to women, although all readers who like to read about Ireland will enjoy its textures of history and description.
—Debbie Lee Wesselmann, author of Trutor and the Balloonist (1997) and Captivity (2008).
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 the 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 TravelWrite 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.