Oddly incomplete biography of the New Yorker writer whose mysterious late-life madness sent her homeless into the streets she had written about for years with grace and precision.
Bourke (Modern Irish/University College, Dublin; The Burning of Bridget Cleary, 2000, etc.) had never heard of Maeve Brennan (1917–93) until 1997, when a friend gave her a copy of The Springs of Affection, whose title story she now considers one of the great pieces of short fiction in the English language. Soon she was committed to learn all she could about a writer whose Irish roots proved to have many connections with Bourke’s. The author begins with several chapters about Brennan’s family (her father was an Irish political radical and writer of mysteries) and about the geography, history, and architecture of those regions of Ireland later showcased in the heavily autobiographical fiction Brennan published in the New Yorker between 1952 and 1972. She left Ireland at age 17, in 1934, when her father accepted a diplomatic position in Washington, D.C. Her first job in journalism was as a fashion writer for Harper’s Bazaar; in 1949 she moved to the New Yorker, where she initially wrote unsigned book reviews. For years, in addition to her stories, she also contributed essays to the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section, most of them featuring a fictional “long-winded lady”; they were popular enough to be collected in book form in 1969. But her success at the magazine did not bring Brennan riches or much fame. She had one failed marriage and many financial and tax problems. She moved swiftly from quirky to eccentric to mad and eventually died in a nursing home, though her biographer’s speculations about the reasons for this decline are less than satisfactory. Bad and bizarre things happened, but why? The book is notable, however, for Bourke’s first-rate descriptions and analyses of Brennan’s fiction.
An impressive portrait—but with blank spots another biographer must one day fill in. (8 pp. b&w photos)