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As Kathleen de Burca, an Irish travel writer based in London, faces the realities of a milestone birthday and sets out for Ireland to discover the truth about a scandalous love affair that took place between the wife of an English landlord and an Irish servant during the potato famine, she uncovers not only the complex mysteries of love but confronts a fateful decision that could change her own life forever.
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Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You takes the old feminist adage one step further: the personal is invariably political in this exquisite first novel, while its politics feel very personal indeed. The heroine, Kathleen de Burca, is an Irish travel writer living in London. Estranged from her homeland and her family, pushing 50 but still living in the same dingy basement flat that's been her home for two decades, Kathleen's is a life gone "even and dry." Love has been her traditional panacea: "I believed in passion the way other people believed in God: everything fell in place around it." But the only love that comes her way these days takes the form of grim, anonymous sex--and even that grows harder to find.
Oddly enough, it's history--her own, and Ireland's--that brings Kathleen back to life. Shattered by a close friend's death, she leaves her job and London to immerse herself in a 150-year-old divorce case. In 1849, according to court documents, the Anglo-Irish landowner Richard Talbot divorced his wife because she committed adultery with their ragged Irish groom. Or did she? The book Kathleen imagines writing about the affair is a classic tale of passion--yet her research turns up a more complicated story, even as love once again makes inroads into her own life.
My Dream of You shares some of the same preoccupations as O'Faolain's bestselling memoir Are You Somebody?: a distant and loveless family life, the plight of Irish women. But it's the historical narrative that gives Kathleen's story both context and shape, juxtaposing the affair inside the demesne walls with the famine outside. The excerpts from her "Talbot Book" are searing in their intensity, studded with images of great beauty and unimaginable suffering. Some readers might in fact wish the book's balance tipped even further in the Talbot direction. Then, however, we might miss the author's heartbreakingly nuanced portrait of Kathleen's loneliness:
It was never real excitement that got you into bed; it was hope, like some stubborn underground weed. Look at the way you've believed every time, at the first brush of a hand across a breast, that the roof over your life was sliding back and a dazzling, starry firmament was just coming into view.The suffering of Irish peasants during the famine might be a grander subject than a solitary woman's search for passion. Yet one is as real as the other. In the Irish experience, as in Kathleen de Burca's, the movements of history leave ghostly tracks across individual lives. --Mary Park About the Author:
Nuala O'Faolain is the author of The New York Times bestseller Are You Somebody? She is a columnist for The Irish Times.
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