Reading Guide Questions
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?
"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 living
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 blows
culminating with the sudden
death of her cherished colleague and closest friend
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
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.
- "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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- "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?
- "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?
- 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?
- "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
- "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.
- 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?
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