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Reviews of Trouble the Living by Francesca Capossela

Trouble the Living

A Novel

by Francesca McDonnell Capossela

Trouble the Living by Francesca McDonnell Capossela X
Trouble the Living by Francesca McDonnell Capossela
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  • Paperback:
    Sep 2023, 303 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

From Northern Ireland to Southern California and back―a mother and daughter confront the violence of the past in an enthralling novel about the possibility of love and redemption during the most transforming and unsettled times.

It's the final years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Bríd and her sister, Ina, try to maintain a stable life in a divided country. Pushed by her mother's fanaticism and a family tragedy, Bríd joins the IRA and makes a devastating choice. Frightened and guilt ridden, she flees, leaving behind Ireland and her family for America.

Years later, her guilt and tragic history still buried, Bríd is an overprotective mother raising her sensitive daughter, Bernie, in Southern California. Growing up amid a different kind of social unrest, Bernie's need for independence and her exploration of her sexuality drive a wedge into their already-fragile relationship. When mother and daughter are forced to return to Northern Ireland, they both must confront the past, the present, and the women they've become.

As they navigate their troubled legacies, mother and daughter untangle the threads of love, violence, and secrets that formed them―and that will stubbornly, beautifully, bind them forever.

Chapter One

1997, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland

On the first sunny day in April, when the world smelled as clean as water tastes, Ma took us to see the border.

"No boys allowed," she said, closing the door of the blue station wagon in our brother Tad's face. She had told Ina and me that we were going shopping for the wedding. In the back seat, Ina wore a bright-yellow turtleneck, her hair pinned like a halo on top of her head. She had a pimple below her left nostril; in every other regard, she was perfect.

On the motorway, Ma drove quickly. I rolled down my window and dangled my wrist out, catching the wind. She kept her gaze on the road, her body still despite the speed, but I had the feeling she was watching me.

We drove on back roads until I was sure we were not, after all, going dress shopping, until I became entirely disoriented as to our location. Only then did Ma pull onto a spot of grass and park the car by a stream. The sun was strong even though it was not warm. I ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Early in the novel, Aoife takes Ina and Brid to view the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. She cautions the girls to not tell their brothers, because "girls understand these things much better than fellas." Why do you suppose she undertook the journey with her daughters? What do you think she meant by this statement, and do you agree?
  2. What did you know about "the Troubles" before reading the book? Did you learn anything new? Was your opinion of the conflict changed in any way?
  3. Why do you suppose Brid refuses to tell Bernie anything about her past? Under the circumstances, do you feel her decision was the correct one?
  4. What parallels did you find between Bernie's life and Brid's? Did you sympathize with one ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Trouble the Living.
You can see the full discussion here.

Alcohol plays a big role in this story; do you think this is symbolic?
I didn't find alcohol to play a huge role in the book, and I found the portrayal of Da as an alcoholic to be the one stereotype among the characters. The role of alcohol for some of the others was that it led them to make mistakes that had ... - juliaa

Aoife takes her daughters to view the border and cautions them not tell their brothers, because "girls understand these things much better than fellas." Why did she do this, and what do you think means?
This comment and action by Aoife is unclear. She may have felt tied down by her children and few fathers accept that restriction. She may have believed women are more emotional and ‘feel’ more strongly. The message from the author, if any... - paulagb

Bernie opines that "too much love could drown you just as well as neglect could." What do you think she meant, and do you agree with her?
I do feel that Bernie felt "drowned" by her mothers love. Brid was so consumed with Bernie and was afraid that she would lose her because she felt she was all she really had. - beckys

Bernie thinks, "I felt lucky ... to be in control of my body, self-governing and whole. It was what we all wanted. To choose our own freedom, to choose our own pain." Do you agree with her?
I absolutely agree with Bernie... the freedom to make our own choices for our own bodies is very important. Often times when we are teenagers, we don't make the wisest choices, but we are the ones who have to live with those consequences in ... - beckys

Brid knew without being told that the Northern Ireland conflict was "set in stone." Treaties have largely kept the peace, but still education and neighborhoods are heavily segregated. How can deep divisions be overcome?
This is such a tough question. There are so many divisions in our current world. As others have mentioned, with events in Gaza, Ukraine and even in this country, people seem to be on firm opposing sides. Maybe some generational changes, but I don&#... - ColoradoGirl

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BookBrowse Review


The narrative touches on many themes: mother/daughter relationships, domestic and political violence, sexuality and dysfunctional families, to name just a few. A book that covers this much ground might feel overstuffed, but in this case Capossela weaves together these thematic threads so seamlessly that only after the conclusion does one truly recognize and appreciate the novel's density. The real highlight, though, may be the author's skill with character development. At first Brid and Bernie seem swept away by people and events—passive players trying to live up to others' ideals. In the end, though, each is empowered to decide her own destiny; they assert themselves and choose the path they feel is best, no longer controlled by their mothers' expectations...continued

Full Review Members Only (543 words)

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Midwest Book Review
An original and deftly crafted novel of cultural heritage, family life, and women's relationships, Trouble the Living by gifted author Francesca McDonnell Capossela is an inherently fascinating read from cover to cover.

This book explores generational anger, whether these daughters should take up the mantels of their mothers' fights or find a healthier path for themselves, and what exactly they owe to their mothers who have sacrificed so much.

Author Blurb Beck Dorey-Stein, author of From the Corner of the Oval and Rock the Boat
Commanding and provocative, Trouble the Living is a hauntingly beautiful exaltation and cross-examination of family. Francesca Capossela's sharp observations are as tremendous as her sure-handed guidance across time, violence, and oceans. Each page proves rich with generosity and sticky with resonance as Capossela expertly weaves together the competing textures of identity. Trouble the Living is a masterful debut from a singular new voice.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Gaffney, author of Metropolis and When the World Was Young
In Trouble the Living, Francesca Capossela has gorgeously braided the stories of two remarkable women, Brid Kane and Bernie Evans. A debut that will sweep you away and also make you rethink the boundaries between love and revenge, mothers and daughters, the old country and the promised land.

Author Blurb Hugo Hamilton, best-selling author of The Speckled People and The Pages
Francesca Capossela writes with outsider/insider clarity, following the trajectory of a brutal sectarian crime from Northern Ireland to the US and back with all its guilt and shame. A debut novel full of intrigue and heart.

Author Blurb Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude
Francesca Capossela is a startling new talent, elegant, erudite, humane, and with a true novelist's sense of form and proportion. Her debut straddles continents and generations with seemingly effortless lyricism and verve. Her exacting insight into the emotional dynamics of family is astonishing.

Author Blurb Kevin Power, author of White City and Bad Day in Blackrock
Trouble the Living is a beautiful, perceptive, heartfelt novel about family: how it shapes us, how we need it, how we struggle against it. Every page contains half a dozen perfectly captured nuances―of mood, of emotion, of weather, of politics. This is a debut by a novelist of startling gifts; Francesca Capossela's scenes come powerfully to life on the page, and she has the true writer's sense of character and place. A hugely impressive and enjoyable book.

Author Blurb Lauren Fox, New York Times bestselling author of Send for Me
Trouble the Living is an exquisite meditation on violence―a contradiction that kept me riveted from start to finish. On every page, the intimate and the political are enmeshed and inextricable, brought to life by the novel's mothers and daughters who love and damage one another in equal measure. Francesca McDonnell Capossela's debut is an absolute stunner.

Author Blurb Lauren Mechling, author of How Could She
With soaring beauty and mighty undertows of pain and intimacy, Francesca Capossela's Trouble the Living is a coming of age story that burns from within and announces the arrival of a great writer. I inhaled it.

Author Blurb Melissa Payne, author of A Light in the Forest and The Night of Many Endings
Trouble the Living is an honest portrait of mothers and daughters that spans generations and cultures, illuminating the cracks formed when lies and deception define relationships. With exquisite writing that transports the reader through time and place, Capossela explores with heart and keen insight the lengths we will go to for the ones we love and ultimately what we are willing to sacrifice to protect our own hearts.

Author Blurb Mina Seçkin, author of The Four Humors
A brilliant novel that navigates pain as gracefully as it does love, Trouble the Living will cast an unbreakable spell on you from its very first page. Francesca Capossela has written here a family saga so powerfully imagined, you'll find yourself caught, like its heroines, between two generations; between Ireland and LA, between duty and desire―all while grappling with what it really means to be a mother, a sister, a daughter.

Author Blurb Paul Lisicky, author of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
Francesca Capossela's Trouble the Living is that rare novel that's both wonderfully propulsive and attuned to the textures of intimate exchange. An accomplished exploration of family, time, place, and autonomy by a writer of great power.

Reader Reviews


A fractured family
I tend not to read books with dysfunctional families as living with mine was hard enough. I was intrigued by this book though since living through war in Northern Ireland was far enough from my own experiences that I felt I could read it without bias...   Read More

In-depth Review:
"Trouble in Living" is a captivating literary work that immerses readers in a thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of human existence. Penned by an accomplished author, the book delves into the depths of life's challenges, emotions, and ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Brief Overview of the Good Friday Agreement

Hands Across the DivideFrancesca McDonnell Capossela's novel Trouble the Living is in part set in Northern Ireland during the waning days of the Troubles, a 30-year period of violence brought mostly to an end by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998.

In 1921, at the end of the Irish War of Independence, Ireland was partitioned into two self-governing territories: the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland and the mostly Roman Catholic Irish Free State to the south. The Irish Free State was declared a Republic in 1949 and became an independent country (now called the Republic of Ireland), but Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

Roman Catholics living in Northern Ireland experienced discrimination in employment, ...

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