By Nuala O'Faolain
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
ISBN # 0-8050-5663-7
Comments of Bob Corbett
Nuala O’Faolain tells a hard story of growing up in Ireland of the 1950s and struggling for meaning and love in her life. Her tale is told intelligently with sensitivity and introspection and while at times I found it rather self-indulgent, I was gripped enough to keep on reading nearly straight through.
While her family was poor, she does not bill herself as one out of the underclass as Frank McCourt does a bit later in his Angela’s Ashes. Rather she describes her family as bohemian and without much money. Otherwise her family story is rather typical of what one hears from Ireland of the early and mid-twentieth century – violent and plagued with drinking and material lacks. O’Faolain has to tolerate a father who could be very winning, but who also beat their mother and paid relatively little attention to the many children. Her mother, a learned woman who wrote book reviews as a mainly private hobby (I understand that activity quite well!) ended up a drunk and died of her alcoholism.
O’Faolain (angelsized and pronounced as Phelan) works her way through the world of TV and radio production, writing scripts and then into journalism where she eventually gets her own opinion column for The Irish Times. It was material for some of those columns, plus her reflections on her own coming to meaning that led her to write this work.
While the Irish Family, represented by her own family is a major theme of this work the central theme is Nuala O’Faolain’s own search for the love of some special other and the escape from loneliness. She also dwells on the pain and sadness this constant search caused her. She knows she does not want love in the traditional Irish sense of married with children, caring for her man. But she’s not sure that there really is an alternative or what that might be. She experiments with male and female lovers in non-married situations free of children, but doesn’t find that perfect partner she dreams of. By late middle age, when she writes this book she has virtually despaired of finding this ideal mate and feels in great measure that it means she has failed as a person.
[ADDENDUM: 3/26/08] I was contacted today by a person who vehemently challenged
my account of what O'Faolain was saying in her book. This person claims from personal
knowledge that: I was wrong in reporting female lovers (plural.) Rather, the correspondent says there was but one such lover and that the two of them were faithful to each other for the 15 years in which they were a couple.
I apologize if my account was wrong on those two points. I no longer have the book to go back and check or reread, but I will trust the correspondent's view enough to record it here. I apologize if my account was inaccurate to the book itself.
Bob Corbett, 3/26/08
There are great conflicts within her. She is a self-declared (but not much evidenced) feminist and stern critic of the stereotype of the Irish family, yet it seems it is nearly that very model which it would take to provide her with what she thinks she is looking for.
There were some great moments along the way. Having raised seven children myself, I was both amused and in agreement when she talked about her parents responding to some minor infraction of the rules of the good child by trying to discipline one of her siblings. She says this was early on when her parents still had energy to do something about it. I could relate to the implied inconsistency, even entropic loss of parenting energy as the years go on. My older sons only half joking complain at family gatherings that their younger siblings had it better since my wife and I just wore out as disciplinarians.
When she begins to travel the world and encounters other religious faiths and ways to be in the world I was amused by her description that this was all eye opening since she had just assumed the world was simply divided into “good Catholics and bad Catholics.”
This book had enormous appeal when it appeared and in a humble moment she allows that part of the popularity of the book and part of her realization was that “… my problems are banal only because so many people share them.” It is certainly true that she tends to focus on the universal problems of love, separation, loneliness, disappointment in loved ones and the pain of suffering from lovers’ cruelty, thoughtlessness and rejection. There is, I think a different separation between the banal and not banal than merely the fact that these particular themes are universal. What seems to me to create a hierarchy of “problems” are when the problems impact larger and larger numbers of people. There is something common and banal in the pain of the lost lover which so many people suffer. But there is a higher order of problem when the pain caused by some other effects the lives of hundreds or thousands of people rather than just a very few. Her obsession with her own failure to find a faithful lover, male or female, seems to cause her to focus quite narrowly on only one to one relationships and their pain, or family relationships and their pains, and not to give much place to larger areas of suffering and evil in the world. One might well counter that this isn’t so since she is so deeply committed to feminism as an issue. But, again, in this book while she talks a feminist agenda, what we mainly hear is her unity with and feeling for other Irish women who suffer in family and by not having this utopian lover in their lives. While I found the book itself rewarding and challenging, I was a great deal disappointed with the “Afterwords” the last 26 pages of the volume I have which must be a later edition. In this section she shares lots of letters and other comments from readers who were deeply touched by her book. There was interesting material here, but it got very long and self-serving after a while, sort of a way of assuring us that now, finally, she can answer the title affirmatively: Are You Somebody? Ah, yes, I’ve written this book and here are the testimonies of many that, indeed, I, Nuala O’Faolain, am somebody.
Despite this concern with the Afterwords, this is a book I recommend to anyone. There is keen insight into the Irish family and the universal (in both time and space) problems that women have suffered in the family within patriarchal society. She addresses problems of sex, love, loneliness and the desire to couple with candor and intelligence. The book would make a wonderful read for a group then wishing to discuss the book.
A second internet reader wrote:
I have just read your review of nuala of faolain's memoir, "are you somebody."
You say she experimented with male and female lovers - I was the only woman in nuala's intimate life.
You say she unsuccessfully sought faithful lovers.
She and I were never unfaithful to each other in he fifteen years we were togthere.
One faithful lover - a woman, at that - and you can't get that right?
Actually, she did not quite describe me as an intimate companion but that's a whole other story.
Sometimes I just grind my teeth and wonder if I have ever got crucial details worn in a book review.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com