Big Girl, Small Town: Book summary and reviews of Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town

by Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen X
Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
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  • Publishes in USA 
    Dec 1, 2020
    320 pages
    Genre: Novels

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About this book

Book Summary

Meet Majella O'Neill, a heroine like no other, in this captivating Irish debut that has been called Milkman meets Derry Girls. For fans of Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, and accessible literary fiction with an edge.

Majella is happiest out of the spotlight, away from her neighbors' stares and the gossips of the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up just after the Troubles. She lives a quiet life caring for her alcoholic mother, working in the local chip shop, watching the regular customers come and go. She wears the same clothes each day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, microwaved at home after her shift ends), and binge-watches old DVDs of the same show (Dallas, best show on TV) from the comfort of her bed. 

But underneath Majella's seemingly ordinary life are the facts that she doesn't know where her father is and that every person in her town has been changed by the lingering divide between Protestants and Catholics. When Majella's predictable existence is upended by the death of her granny, she comes to realize there may be more to life than the gossips of Aghybogey, the pub, and the chip shop. In fact, there just may be a whole big world outside her small town. 

Told in a highly original voice, with a captivating heroine readers will love and root for, Big Girl, Small Town will appeal to fans of Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, and accessible literary fiction with an edge.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"A darkly hilarious novel about small-town life ... Wildly entertaining." - The Guardian

"Sinead Moriarty's endorsement 'Milkman meets Derry Girls' is as accurate as you'll get. But Big Girl, Small Town is even funnier than Derry Girls, while being just as fraught as Anna Burns's Booker Prize winner." - The Irish Independent
 
"A confident debut with a very memorable protagonist." - The Irish Times
 
"Engrossing." - Image magazine (One of 8 "Must Reads" of 2020)
 
"Bawdy yet beautiful ... I grew extraordinarily attached to Majella." - Sara Baume, author of A Line Made by Walking

"A thrillingly fresh, provocative and touching voice." - Marian Keyes, bestselling author of Grown Ups
 
"It's the humour, dry and gritty, that sets Big Girl, Small Town apart ... to think that this is Michelle Gallen's debut is astonishing, as Majella's narration is bold and assured ... evocative, caustic and compelling." - Sunday Business Post
 
"Northern Ireland is currently producing more exceptional writers per square inch than possibly anywhere else ... Michelle Gallen will most certainly earn her place in the honours list. Big Girl, Small Town is even funnier than Derry Girls, while being just as fraught as Anna Burns's Booker Prize winner." - Sunday Independent
 
"A winning evocation of a small Irish community whose people burst from its pages. Engaging and satisfying." - Daily Mail
 
"Superb."  - Irish Examiner
 
"Darkly funny." - Mail on Sunday
 
"Gallen's debut deserves comparisons with Anna Burns' Milkman for its depiction of the impact of the Troubles on a vulnerable young woman, but this terrifically imagined tender black comedy is very much its own book." - Metro
 
"Charming ... there is an easy warmth to Big Girl, Small Town." - Sunday Times
 
"Gallen's unrelenting eye for the bizarre and Coughlan's talent for deadpanning make it an absolute winner." - Financial Times
 
"Milkman meets Derry Girls. A cracking read." - Sinead Moriarty, bestselling author of Seven Letters

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Reader Reviews

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Lauren T. (Orlando, FL)

Big Girl Small Town
Big Girl Small Town takes the reader through a week in the life of Majella O'Neill, a woman in her 20s who works at a chip shop and lives with her alcoholic mother. Majella's father disappeared years before, during the time of the Troubles. Her grandmother, her father's mother, has been murdered, and the police are searching for her murderer.

The book is written in a series of vignettes under headings denoting things Majella either likes or doesn't (mostly the latter). We meet the chip shop's other employees and customers, all residents of Majella's small town, Aghybogey.

Majella knows what she doesn't like about each customer, but needs Marty's insights and taste for gossip to flesh out her understanding of their lives. She tells us that she has difficulty figuring out people's emotions from looking at their faces, a sign that she may be on the autism spectrum.

Majella is a sympathetic main character with much to say, mostly about her likes and dislikes. I found the book enjoyable but wished when I had finished reading it that more of the loose ends had been tied up.

Joan V. (Miller Place, NY)

A Side Order of Fries Please
I had a hard time deciding how to rate this book. At first, I thought two stars but as I progressed, I began to like it more mostly because of Majella the main character. Some readers might be put off by the style of writing which was in a STRONG Irish accent and no quotation marks. Ms. Gallen set the book in a small town in Northern Ireland that still has signs of the Troubles. The British arrest people who come back with black eyes and bruised faces. Majella's Uncle Bobby was in the IRA and is considered a hero by some in the town, her own father's sympathies were definitely with the South.

We are introduced to lots of characters in the town all with colorful nicknames and the only humor I found in the novel was the description of how they got them. You really got the claustrophobic feel of living in a small town - the hopelessness and resignation. The ending was abrupt and I would like to believe that Majella was able to move on to a better life. One of the town characters was arrested, we never found out why; we also don't know what happened to her father and that makes me hope for a sequel. After reading Big Girl Small Town you will definitely want to head to your nearest chipper for some fries.

Ms. Gallen is a good storyteller and I would definitely read her next book.

Jill S. (Chicago, IL)

A nuanced character study
Big Girl, Small Town laser-focuses on the stout and underachieving character Majella O'Neill—cruelly called Jelly – who lives in the small village of Aghybogey during the Irish Troubles.

Each chapter begins with the time of day and an item from a list of things she doesn't like at the start at the novel (the most important of these items is "other people.") The precision of the chapters suggests that in all likelihood, Majella is on the autistic spectrum. She lives a small and bleak life: no friends, no ambitions, wears the same clothes every day, works in a local chip shop called Salt and Battered and watches her favorite TV series, Dallas. Yet the narrow focus on Majella belies the important events going on around outside her.

Her mother is an alcoholic, her octogenarian Gran has been murdered, and the Irish Troubles pervades everyone's life. People are segregated by religion and violence is never far in the background.

The author gets many things right: the Irish patois, which takes some getting used to but adds a great degree of authenticity…the ambiance of Aghybogey….and most of all, the internal and external nuances of a character. It's hard for a reader not to feel in the skin of the character; in fact, the novel works best as a character study.

The promised humor is outweighed by a sense of bleakness and poignancy. The book is best recommended for readers who have patience for a book that meanders slowly as it focuses on outward routines and inward churning. I didn't love it, but I admired the author's intent and execution.

Betsey V. (Austin, TX)

Not my cuppa
I have been particularly drawn to Irish authors such as Anne Enright and Sally Rooney, and I looked forward to Michelle Gallen's debut. She notably portrays a provincial Irish village, rendering her characters with painfully honest and detailed definition, complete with the local patois and ethos. The tension between Catholics and Protestants is fully on display, as the story takes place not long after the Troubles ended. Gallen is obviously talented and insightful, but I regretfully had to force myself to finish it. The author was purposely redundant to make a thematic point of a woman stuck in a static town with backward customs. Unfortunately for me, it backfired and became a series of Groundhog Days, page after implacable page, chapter after intractable chapter, with a plodding, punishing plot.

Majella, the pudgy 27 year-old protagonist, possesses dormant intelligence and questionable personal hygiene habits, but prefers a spotless environment. Her compulsive tics point to the autism spectrum, although it isn't specifically stated. She's worked at the local fish 'n chip shop for nine years, and occasionally has sex in the storeroom with her married co-worker. Her dad disappeared when she was a child, never to be found, and presumed dead by many. This trauma disturbs Majella's life, soils her outlook, and sustains her stagnation.

Majella supports her insufferable, somatic and alcoholic mother, who stays home to drink, smoke, and complain. Their house is decaying and their bond is declining. In her free time, Majella makes lists of what she likes—eating, cleaning, Dallas (the TV show), among other things, and what she doesn't like, such as noise, fashion, gossip, and sweating. There are subgroups of each, but it all boils down to not liking "Other People."

Every night, Majella returns home with fried food from work, microwaves it, and tucks herself in bed to watch old episodes of Dallas, or lies there in confounding displeasure, eating. Periodically, she intervenes in her mother's attention-seeking and self-destructive behaviors. Occasionally, Majella takes the hours long journey to visit her beloved granny, her only departure from the recycled days. We know from the opening pages that her granny was recently murdered, and the perp is still unknown. As the narrative alternates time periods, we learn just enough to stay restless.

"Majella didn't understand all this pseudo-secrecy, the stories people told. She liked things straight. But things weren't like that in Aghybogey. It was a town in which there was nowhere to hide, so people hid stuff in plain sight."

Despite the narrative confidence and unique voice of Majella, the daily repetition of circumstance and interactions fell flat for me. Although I acknowledge that the author designed the story to illustrate the quotidian life and unchanging mores of this fictional village in Northern Ireland (near the border of the Irish Republic), it failed to keep me engaged beyond the first few chapters. I powered through, hoping for an intriguing payoff. However, the finale was quickly dispatched and foreseeable.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I'll keep an eye out for Gallan's next novel. I appreciate what she achieved, but I'm the wrong audience for this book. She controlled her narrative and gave it the structure she intended, but it left me sluggish and listless. Gallan's talent is indisputable, however, and I'm optimistic about her future work.

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Author Information

Michelle Gallen Author Biography

Michelle Gallen was born in County Tyrone in the mid 1970s and grew up during the Troubles a few miles from the border between what she was told was the"'Free" State and the "United" Kingdom. She studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin and won several prestigious prizes as a young writer. Following a devastating brain injury in her midtwenties, she co-founded three award-winning companies and won international recognition for digital innovation. She now lives in Dublin with her husband and kids.

Name Pronunciation
Michelle Gallen: Sounds like gallon

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