Reading guide for My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain

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My Dream of You

by Nuala O'Faolain

My Dream of You
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2001, 528 pages
    Feb 2002, 544 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

What gives a life meaning? How is love found? Nuala O'Faolain, noted Irish Times columnist, took on these questions with striking intimacy and candor in her bestselling and acclaimed memoir, Are You Somebody? Hailed as "a beautiful exploration of human loneliness and happiness, of contentment and longing" (Alice McDermott, The Washington Post), the book struck a chord with legions of readers on both sides of the Atlantic and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. My Dream of You followed her memoir's path, hitting bestseller lists around the world and confirming O'Faolain's remarkable gifts as a writer.

Set in Ireland and spanning a century-and-a-half, My Dream of You unfolds the compelling stories of two women and their quests for passion, connection, and fulfillment. On the brink of fifty, Kathleen de Burca is looking back at her life and asking questions about her choices. A globetrotting staff writer for the London-based TravelWrite syndicate for more than twenty years, she is used to livingand lovingon the run. Since the age of twenty-three, when she betrayed her first meaningful intimate relationship, she has had a steady succession of brief encounters, which have become less satisfying and more humiliating with each passing year. After a quick round of blowsculminating with the sudden death of her cherished colleague and closest friendKathleen decides to leave her job and rethink her life. Intrigued by a divorce case dating back to the days of the Potato Famine, she decides to try her hand at writing about it. The case, called "The Talbot Affair," detailed the clandestine liaison lasting three years between the wife of a British landlord and an Irish servant in Ireland in the 1850s. After a bitter thirty-year absence, Kathleen returns to Ireland, the land of her troubled childhood and turbulent heritage, in search of answers to her questions about desire and lasting love.

A contemporary story wrapped around an actual event, both equally gripping, My Dream of You is rich in timeless and relevant truths about adversity and human nature, passion and true love. Having created two complex, deeply feeling women at the mercy of their times and circumstances, and forced to make difficult choices, Nuala O'Faolain proves she is as gifted and powerful a weaver of fiction as she is an observer and chronicler of real life.

Discussion Questions
  1. "I knew all about the act of love as a non-event," Kathleen de Burca says, "but I still believed it was the act in which one person can truly learn another, and truly build on what they learn." (p. 64) In what ways has this belief affected her relationships with lovers over the course of her life? Does she still believe this at the end of the book? Why or why not?

  2. What does Kathleen's relationship with Caro reveal about her character? What about her friendship with Alex? With Jimmy? How does each person affect Kathleen's sense of herself?

  3. The loss of Jimmy is the catalyst for Kathleen's return to Ireland. In what ways does his death challenge her perception of herself as "well defended against crisis, if it came from outside"? (p.7) What is she guarding herself against? What are her vulnerabilities?

  4. Why is the story of the Talbot affair so compelling to the young Kathleen? Does she return to it in middle age for the same or different reasons?

  5. "I think they were perhaps the happiest people in Europe, for a while...They had the old faith," Miss Leech tells Kathleen (p. 70). What role does Irish Catholic faith play in Kathleen's present life? What about her past?

  6. "The country I was driving through was only a green space. I didn't care anymore what was outside," Kathleen says. (p. 490) Discuss the changing role of landscape throughout the novel. How does Mount Talbot of Marianne's time compare to Kathleen's basement apartment? What part of Kathleen's identity is linked to her travels? What about her experience of the cottage at Mellary? Her return to Uncle Ned's home?

  7. To what extent does Kathleen know herself through her body? Has her perception of herself been changed by her affair with Shay? How or how not?

  8. "We're middle-aged women now and we have to forgive the pastfor our own sakes," Kathleen tells her sister. (p. 498) What has led her to this conclusion? Has Kathleen come to terms with her own aging? Why or why not?

  9. "I could choose what to believe about the Talbot scandal. I would choose what to believe." Kathleen says near the end of her journey. (p. 486) What stake has she placed in her passionate imagining of the two lovers? What forces have shaped her thinking about the Talbots at this point? Have her assumptions about romantic love been challenged or reinforced by her journey home? By her affair with Shay? Discuss.

  10. Discuss the various ways in which women's roles are presented in the novel. How do the mothers in the story (Kathleen's mother, Caro, Annie, Ella) compare with Kathleen? How is she challenged by the women in her life as compared to the men?

For more information about other Penguin Readers Guides, please call the Penguin Marketing Department at (800) 778-6425, email at or write to us at: Penguin Books, Marketing Department, Readers' Guides, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014-3657.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Riverhead Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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