Non-fiction – paperback; Riverhead Books; 288 pages; 2004.
I do love a good memoir, and after reading Nualo O’Faolian’s Are You Somebody? last year (which I awarded five stars) I knew I just had to read the second part, Almost There.
Of course reading this book feels kind of spooky (and terribly sad), because O’Faolain, an Irish journalist, died of cancer four years after it was completed, and at the time of writing she would not have had the slightest inkling of what fate had in store. She writes fondly of looking forward to growing old with a new love and his young daughter, and there’s a real sense of optimism about the future. Perhaps it’s better that she didn’t know what was just around the corner…
Almost There fills in the six years after O’Faolain’s first memoir, which became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, was published in 1997. During this time she becomes a bit of a hermit, hiding away from the world in response to the breakdown of her 15-year relationship with Nell McCafferty that left her feeling emotionally raw, isolated and lonely. (Ironically, her relationship with Nell barely got mentioned in the first book, and it’s much the same for the second. But O’Faolain does explains that she had not wanted to spoil a good relationship by putting it down on paper.)
The loneliness is compounded by a year living in Northern Ireland (she basically packed up her Dublin house overnight) to write a column about life north of the border for the Irish Times. It was an experiment which proved profoundly difficult for her and it was only when she moved to Manhattan, where she then pens her first novel, My Dream of You, that she begins to feel life is returning to some semblance of normality.
Most of the memoir is a kind of meandering look at how that initial publishing success changed her circumstances but didn’t necessarily change her as a person: still psychologically damaged from her difficult childhood and grappling with the anger (mainly against her alcoholic mother) that this has caused; still unable to settle down with a man, but not afraid to pursue sordid love affairs.
I think the best thing about Almost There, aside from O’Faolain’s beautiful writing and her unashamed pursuit of the truth, is the way in which she gives voice to so many other “late middle-aged” (she never uses the term elderly) women like her: hugely successful on the outside, with wonderful careers and enough money to live comfortably, but deeply lonely because they never married or had children. She is so honest about her hurt and her regret that it’s difficult not to share the pain. However, O’Faolain doesn’t wallow in self-pity and always tempers her pathos with dark-edged humour and fond memories of the good things that have happened to her. She knows when she is sounding like a spoilt child and is not afraid to admit it.
While not as wonderful as Are You Somebody? this is a moving account of one woman’s search for meaning in her late middle-life. Before reading this one, I’d suggest reading her novel, My Dream of You, (if you haven’t already) because she references it a lot, and you can very easily see how she mined the events of her own life for the fictional 50-year-old character she created.