"I was interested, always, in any story about passion," says Kathleen de Burca, the narrator of My Dream of You. "I believed in passion the way other people believed in God; everything fell into place around it." The same is true for Kathleen's creator, Nuala O'Faolain, who in her best-selling memoir Are You Somebody? frankly discussed craving passion at an age where the world expects you to put up your hair and put on your pinnie. "I am, let's face it, in my middle years," said O'Faolain, 55.
In both her memoir and her novel, the Irish author limns the richness of a life that might otherwise be overlooked. "There's a new part of life now for women between 45 and 70," said O'Faolain. "The rest of the world is still looking on aghast these women are elderly but we're girls inside. We want love, the big thing, the wipeout, the shaking knees. A lot of other people might think it's unseemly to go 'round with their heart on their sleeves, but life's short, and I'm not going to bother my head about seemliness."
Both O'Faolain (pronounced oh-FWAY-lun) and her novel's narrator feel the teeming regret for the end of passion and the end of being perceived sexually. "It was almost shameful," said the author. "I do believe that was the deepest thing at work in me."
But her novel is much more. At its core is a moment in history. During Ireland's potato famine (1845-1848) when over a million died, an Irish stable groom had an affair with a wife of the English gentry. Kathleen, a travel writer on the cusp of 50 and on sabbatical after the death of a friend, becomes fascinated with the incident. Alone after a series of failed relationships, she wants to understand how passion could exist and triumph across political and economic divides during so dark a time. So she returns to Ireland for the first time in 30 years to find out. My Dream of You weaves the story of the past with Kathleen's present, her search for self. Said the author, "It's not a going-home book, it's a going-back book."
"Why would men so willfully blind themselves to honest, heartfelt news from the front? They should read it for the sex."
Though the heart of the story is set in Ireland, O'Faolain wrote it in New York, a city she adores. "I love it, I find it completely liberating, a great big immigrant place. Everyone's on their way somewhere else. I think it's wonderful, the history of immigration, of self-belief. It's a great credit to the human race, this place."
She likes it so well she's hoping to split her time between New York and her cottage in County Clare, Ireland. O'Faolain finds an Irish sensibility and an American one are two ends of the same spectrum. "We're too melancholy, too hidden, and here [in America], it's too optimistic and denies too much the bad side of life. But we need each other."
Being away from Ireland freed the author to take the story where she wanted and where others may not want. "I think I'm going to be murdered in Ireland," said O'Faolain, not entirely joking. "The famine is not something the Irish take lightly. This solemn and tragic event haunts me, but to treat it as part of a single individual's emotional life is really quite a daring thing to do, she said. But it was my only way of coming at it."
Illuminating an emotional life is what novels do best, which is why O'Faolain always loved them, why she turned to novels growing up as one of nine children in a poor Dublin household. "Novels were what I cared about," she writes in Are You Somebody? "They asked the questions I wanted answered: How do lives get lived? How is love found?"
O'Faolain believes her themes of love and longing are universal. Some of her male friends don't agree. "I hoped for a human audience, but if what I end up with is a woman's audience, that's all right by me. But why would men so willfully blind themselves to honest, heartfelt news from the front? They should read it for the sex."
The wit and candor she brought to her memoir and still brings to her weekly columns for The Irish Times is evident on every page of her novel. "Much more than most writers, I'm aware of the reader," she said. "I'm urgently trying to tell a story that would interest them and the whole thing is defeated if it simply makes too many demands on the reader."