When Irish people get old, writer Nuala O'Faolain tells us, the government waives the fee for their required television licenses. The assumption is that they're going to spend the rest of their lives quietly at home, watching younger folks do more exciting things on the telly. But when people in the United States get old, she notes, they "go for cosmetic surgery, reconstruct their teeth and bleach them white, exfoliate their skin, tan it, laser their failing eyesight, wear toupees, diet savagely."
O'Faolain, author of the best-selling memoir Are You Somebody? and the novel My Dream of You, is very much an Irishwoman strong, tough-minded and funny, even while being fully aware of life's tragedies. But in late middle age, she's also become a sort of semi-American, both geographically and spiritually. She has transformed herself since she turned 55, and she lets us in on the experience in her second memoir, Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman.
In Are You Somebody?, O'Faolain told of growing up in a large family with an alcoholic, resentful mother and a celebrity-journalist father who was never around when he was needed. She survived both that and a slightly wild youth to become a well-known columnist for the Irish Times and maintain a long, stable relationship with another woman.
But all was not well when she wrote her first book. She and her lover had just split up, she had no children, and she had nothing much to show for her life except ephemeral newspaper clippings. O'Faolain was in a serious depression.
AYS, as she calls her first memoir, started out as an introduction to a collection of columns. But as a book, it became the catalyst for her reconstruction. Its success allowed her to move away from Ireland and journalism to a new career, a new country and the possibility, however fragile, of a new love.
As she candidly shows in Almost There, O'Faolain's re-invention hasn't been a painless process. She fell into a long affair with an older man that provided useful source material for My Dream of You, but held her back emotionally. And we cringe as she describes her self-destructive inner turmoil over another relationship. But the overall message of the new book is one of hope: It's never too late to become a better person. "The person that was me who moved slowly around in that silence is now dead,'' writes O'Faolain. "And I'm glad she is."
Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.