By Annette Gallagher Weisman
On a snowy day in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nuala O'Faolain (pronounced NEW-la O-FWAY-lon) answers the phone. "Hello, is that Cincinnati?" she says with her Irish lilt, as if people were calling her that day from all over the world.
They might be. Her first memoir, Are You Somebody? - a brutally honest account of a middle-aged woman who considers herself a failure - caused such a stir here and in Ireland that she has become a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic in the six years since its publication.
She was already "somebody" in Ireland, known for her controversial columns in the Irish Times on topics such as abortion and atheism.
Not to mention her long relationship with well-known Irish journalist and activist Nell McCafferty.
Back home, O'Faolain knows everybody and everybody knows her. But now she's living in Brooklyn with her new love, John (they met through Match.com) and his young daughter.
While she loves America, her heart is in Ireland. "Ireland is not so easily left," she says. "I mean for all that I've been a serious critic of Ireland I love it. I love the fabric of it, I love the jokes and the voices. I know everything about it and I'm part of it, whereas here, I'm just one of millions."
She sounds cheery, though she is past deadline for the next novel. "If it wasn't for the absolute agony that I'm trying to write a second novel and it's not working out and that it really and truly dominates my life - almost totally; if it weren't for that, certainly for the hour and day and maybe week, I'm very well."
She has a lot to be happy about. Her first novel, My Dream of You (2001), was a success. Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman, her second memoir, was just published.
"I'm going to get into profound trouble with my own tribe," she says about Almost There. "It's very ingrained in Irish life that you don't tell anybody your private business. It threatens a small country where everybody knows everybody."
There are more tales of O'Faolain's family, especially of her bookish mother, who turned to alcohol for comfort while her society-columnist husband gadded about town.
There's more too, about McCafferty, as well as former male lovers and her new beau.
The book comes across as a confessional of sorts with, occasionally, the defiant stance of a stubborn child and the global views of a honed journalist thrown into the mix.
Her first memoir was accidental, having begun as an introduction to her columns, with no outside pressures. "I didn't expect more than a handful of very eccentric readers," she explains.
This time, she felt a strong need to write about the past six years because, as she says, "Good fortune has been far more turbulent for me than the years of bad fortune."
While she agrees that in the new book she exudes more energy and confidence, at the same time she admits being uncertain about the future.
"You would think having been lavishly rewarded in middle age, that at last the combination of my own life experiences and great good luck would bring me through. But I haven't reached shore at all."
She says she now realizes that her previous love affairs were not like being in a real relationship, that they were more like two independent people cohabiting and having a good time. Trying to live in a family situation, as she is now, is difficult for her. Used to having time to herself, she is developing new habits, like getting out of bed early for a solitary cup of tea or slipping into the bath.
"People can ask for things when you're in the shower," she says, "but they've got to leave you alone when you're in the bath."
The mailman arrives and John's dog, Mimmo, begins to bark. "Meee-mo," she says. "Good dog." Then she utters soothing words that sound Italian.
It turns out the dog is Italian. "He followed my fella John around and was brought back here at great inconvience and expense," she says. "The funny thing is, he (Mimmo) loves pasta!" She says pasta with relish, as if she could devour a plate that minute.
For someone who sounds kind, compassionate, even motherly on the phone, it's ironic that motherhood has eluded her.
She's blamed her lack of maternal instinct on her alcoholic mother, who neglected her nine children. Earlier in her life, O'Faolain considered not having children a blessing, saying it allowed her to travel and hold interesting jobs.
Now, well, she's still not sure about being a mother to John's daughter. "I'll never be No. 1 to him," she writes in Almost There.
As for a third memoir, she has no plans for one. What she would like to do is to get back to writing objective nonfiction. "I'm temporarily disgusted by my own emotionalism. . . . I'd love to write about America, I'd love to write about women."
Nuala O'Faolain will discuss and sign Almost There 7 p.m. Wednesday, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Madison and Edwards roads, Norwood, 396-8960; and 7 p.m. Thursday, Books & Co., 350 E. Stroop Road, Kettering (937) 298-6540.
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