The skilled prose of Irish author O'Brien (18971974) transmutes the material of a conventional coming-of-age tale (``banned in Ireland in 1936 for its frank depiction of lesbianism'') into a rich, absorbing study of character and culture. It's 1922, and Mary Lavelle, the 22-year-old daughter of a widowed doctor in Ireland, is quiet and seemingly conventional, yet she has two qualities that are bound to attract notice: her startling beauty and her yearning to become an independent wanderer. Mary is engaged to nice-but-dull John MacCurtain, a demobilized soldier now working as shipping clerk. John cautiously insists on waiting for marriage until he has a good income, and so Mary, feeling fondness but no great ardor for her fiancÇ, decides to make use of the time to become a governess in Spain—a then traditional occupation for rootless Irishwomen. She finds work tutoring the daughters of a family headed by the aristocratic Don Pablo Areavaga, whose marriage—complicated, sexless, but not unloving—is explored in depth. Despite initial homesickness, Mary soon takes to her charges, who include the vain, gregarious Pilar and the spirited, amusingly precocious Milagros. With her youth and looks, their new governess provokes comment in the spinsterish community of Irish ``misses,'' but she nevertheless finds friends in Rosie O'Toole, a spunky eccentric, and Agatha Conlon, an austere, mysterious semi-recluse. As Mary develops a taste for bullfights and an infatuation with Spain in general, she comes to find answering John's daily letters a chore. Events reach a crisis when she meets Don Pablo's married son, Juanito—while, at the same time, Agatha is developing her own illicit passion for Mary. Passive and impressionable Mary is sometimes a frustrating heroine, but O'Brien writes with a striking grace and acuity that illuminate not only the landscape of but the complexity of the people living in it. (Film rights to Miramax)

Pub Date: June 27, 1997

ISBN: 0-7868-6191-6

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Hyperion

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1997

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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