The Book: Nuala O'Faolain, ARE YOU SOMEBODY? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. Owl Books trade paperback reprint, 1999 (11th printing). Very good condition.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2002
This was Nuala O'Faolain's first book, but it's the third one I read, and it's strange that it's the only one still on my shelves. Paradoxically, it's not because it's my favorite; it's because I've lent out my favorite (her novel, MY DREAM OF YOU), and because the first of her books I read (her second memoir, ALMOST THERE) was a loan from my friend Maeve.
If that sounds complicated, it's appropriate. My feelings about this book are complicated. It's an "accidental memoir" by a woman who lived an accidental life, in many ways, until she was almost 50. Nuala O'Faolain was the bright daughter of a Dublin theatrical critic and his alcoholic wife, one of nine children who survived her mother's 13 births. She grew up in isolated shabby gentility, because no one was supposed to know just how poor her family was, and because her father had a longtime mistress in the city who was supposed to be a secret from his wife. O'Faolain had a marvelous education, but her mother told her she cared less that her daughters succeed at university than that they get husbands and children.
O'Faolain didn't marry and didn't have children, and -- by her own description -- drifted into a successful career, as a journalist and TV producer, that she didn't really pursue and never felt she deserved. Along the way she had any number of relationships with inappropriate men, and met thousands of people but had a hard time keeping friendships, because of the lifetime of secrecy trained into her.
This memoir seems, at least in part, a response to that nuclear weapon of Irish families: "Who do you think you are?" Are You Somebody? is O'Faolain's effort to answer that question for herself. It was an uncomfortable read, not least because I recognized many of my own most-deplored character traits in her.
Her second memoir is much more hopeful, a story of life beginning after 50, and I'm glad I read that one first. Had I read this book first, the sadness of it would have overwhelmed me, and I wouldn't have read any more of O'Faolain's work. As it is, I keep this book to remind myself that life will always surprise us, as long as we keep living.