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Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Womanby Nuala O'Faolain
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ABOUT THE BOOK
In this moving memoir Irish Times columnist Nuala O'Faolain tells the story of being raised in Dublin by an alcoholic, overwhelmed mother and a feckless, absent father. Born into a penniless family, O'Faolain could have quietly composed her life within the confining boundaries of male-dominated Catholic Ireland. instead, she plunges into her life, full of questions and wonder and fear. Against all odds she becomes both an agent and a beneficiary of change in Ireland.
With candor and eloquence, O'Faolain explores the power of words, the awakening of her sexuality, her education, her search for love, and the trajectory of her career. She is unafraid to confront the darker side as ,well-the lapses into despair and alcohol, her romantic disappointments, the doubts that plague her, the yearnings she cannot stifle. in her bold pursuit of truth, O'Faolain exposes the loneliness, passion, loss, love, pain, and self-discovery that have shaped her life. Are You Somebody? is testimony to the courage that voicing the truth requires and the rewards it brings.
NUALA O'FAOLAIN'S NOTE TO READERS
I never imagined anyone reading what I wrote. I'm glad I didn't — the thought of readers would have inhibited me very badly. As it was, l was free to be as reckless as I liked. I did worry about my family. I knew I somehow had to negotiate tacit permission from them for what I was doing — anyone who writes a candid autobiography has to do that. But I literally never allowed into my mind the picture of a complete stranger, somewhere far away, reading the words I was thinking up at the kitchen table. I never thought of critics. I would have tried to write in a more literary way if I'd had reviews in mind. But I didn't have them in mind. I just talked to myself. Urgently.
"What have I to lose?" I used to think. The question I should have been asking myself was, "What have I to gain?" But joy has come to me late. I wasn't really joyful until the experience of writing and publishing Are You Somebody? purged a lot of the confusion and distress which I was carrying around with me. My readers understood me exactly. It didn't matter how different the details of their lives were from mine: that they were American, not Irish; men, not women; old or young, not middle-aged; fortunate, not — as I believed myself to be — unfortunate. They still identified with the central human quest which, unwittingly, my memoir describes. I have had very many letters from readers all over the world. I never fully grasped before I read those letters that we are all in the human condition together. We are much more alike than we are different. And the greatest consolation for the inescapable pain of being human is the love we offer each other.
What I have learnt from the whole experience is not about reading and writing. It is about people. They're much wiser, and much, much more generous, than I suspected. I thought I was describing incurable loneliness — when I was writing away in my quiet room. But the very act of describing it brought me the readers who have peopled it.
2. Although Nuala O'Faolain delights in romance, she has not married or settled into one long-term monogamous relationship. What has she lost and gained as a result?
3. Nuala O'Faolain describes the wreck of her mother, declaring, "This was where grand passion had left her" (p. 11). How is Nuala able to escape the debilitating, overwhelming association with passion and love that undid her mother?
4. Although the women's movement had begun, Nuala O'Faolain remained in the old culture, "wandering among its ruins, picking through its fragments" (p. 138). But later in life she "wept for the millions and millions of anonymous women who might never have been', for all we know of them" (p. 167). What kept Nuala in the old culture? What finally altered her perspective?
5. Nuala O'Faolain's age informs and colors her story. How might this memoir have differed had she written it ,when she was in her twenties? How might the book differ ,were she to write an autobiography when she is in her eighties?
6. "Each thing is itself, discrete: near each other, and made from the same material, but never flowing into each other," O'Faolain writes. "That's how the life I have described here has been. There has been no steady accumulation; it has all been in moments" (p. 188). How is this belief enacted in the structure of the book? What effect does the book's form have on the portrait Nuala O'Faolain paints of herself?
7. How does Nuala O'Faolain's relationship to her country of origin change with time? in what ways is Nuala O'Faolain's story also the story of Ireland?
8. What role do children play in the unfolding of Nuala's story? How are children betrayed by adults? What do children need from their parents? Why does Nuala believe that she would be a good parent at this stage in her life?
9. Discuss the ways in which Nuala's mother and father succeeded as parents.
10. As an opinion columnist, Nuala O'Faolain has no responsibility for trying to present objective truths. Do you think her portrayal of her own life is accurate? How does the author's reliability affect your reading of her story?
11. At the end of the book, Nuala O'Faolain suggests that she can't do anything but "thank the God I don't believe in for the miracles showered on me" (p. 215). O'Faolain has a complicated relationship with God — she both expresses her gratitude to God and denies God's existence in the same sentence. In what ways do O'Faolain's story and voice seem to underscore a belief in God? What aspects of her life undermine such a conviction? What is the source of her fierce ambivalence?
12. O'Faolain writes, "When I called my memoir Are You Somebody? it was largely to preempt the hostile people who'd say, at my writing anything about myself at all, 'Who does she think she is?"' (p. 191). What other meanings does the title hold? The subtitle?
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