Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness.
The novel follows Nora through a series of changes and struggles, from selling the family's vacation house and taking a job to finally, after six years or so, beginning to blossom as her own person. If you are looking for an exciting, plot-driven novel, Nora Webster will not be your cup of tea. But Toibin's writing is fine, as usual, and his character sketch a full and affectionate one.
Eventually, through music and other activities she begins to find herself. There are some unusual turns to the story such as very serious voice lessons, listening parties for classical music, a community quiz bowl, among others.
Nora is not particularly likeable, but at the same time, the reader can see that she is doing her best for her family. In a strange way, this reminded me of "Olive Kitteridge". Vaguely set against a background of Irish unrest in Northern Ireland.
Tóibín is writing about an Ireland that doesn't exist anymore, just as it began to change with the Troubles beginning in Northern Ireland and the conflict a growing concern in the Republic. And women's roles were changing, with Nora's daughters experiencing vastly more freedom than she did. Nora, herself, gets to experience some of that independence, slowly and reluctantly choosing hobbies and interests outside of what her family circle enjoys.
There's no great action in this book, no central conflict to resolve. It unfolds like ordinary life, a series of challenges and decisions to be made and lived with, as Nora works to keep her family going and to find her own feet. And the writing is lovely; unassuming and clear. I'll always read whatever Tóibín decides to write because of the quality of his writing, but I also love the care with which focuses on women who live their lives largely unnoticed by others.
I enjoyed this quiet and unassuming novel, watching Nora and the boys change as Nora learns to live her own life. I loved the moment, three years later, when she realizes she can do what she wants now, that there is no one who can tell her she can't. In this case, it was about redecorating her home. I loved the two boys, they too change in many ways, but the youngest watches closely everything that goes on. It takes great skill as a writer to make the most common events interesting and for me this author did just that.
Taking place in Ireland against the backdrop of the Catholic protestant violence and the burning of the embassy, but also against the backdrop of wonderful music, Nora eventually finds her way forward. It takes the help of family, a wonderful ex-nun who is a music teacher and another nun who watches out for Nora from afar.
A wonderful and unassuming read.
ARC from publisher.
The story takes place in Ireland in Enniscorthy. Nora has four children, her older daughters Aine and Fiona are pretty much out on their own. Fiona is studying to become a teacher so she isn’t under the same roof anymore. The younger two are boys, Donal and Conor.
After several chapters it’s revealed that Donal and Conor stayed with Nora’s aunt while she sat by Maurice’s hospital bedside. During this stressful time Nora never visited her sons and there seems to be a lasting effect from the lack of visits and of course, losing their father. Donal developed a very bad stammer and both boys are withdrawn.
I didn’t feel like I was reading an novel so much as being privy to Nora’s thoughts in an abstract journal. When she visited her sisters, Una and Catherine, I could feel the tension and annoyance between them.
Nora’s Aunt Josie visited and said, “I remember you and Catherine and Una after you father died, and it took you all much longer. It was a very sad house then, but children bounce back, that’s the great thing.”
“I don’t think they do. I never did,” Nora said. “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself. “ And she wondered then if she should take Donal to a speech therapist.
Just as Nora kept her thoughts to herself, so did her sons. Perhaps it would have been better to keep them closer during Maurice’s hospital stay. It was mentioned how intrusive her own mother was and I think this must be the reason Nora didn’t get as involved, or express and opinion where perhaps where she ought to, regarding her children.
As I read Nora’s story I formed an opinion of what the real flesh and blood person would be like. I was party to her personal thoughts, many of which she did not share aloud with anyone. As she mourns privately she also explores a life without Maurice. She has new experiences and broadens her knowledge and love of music.
“What she had told no one, because it was too strange, was how much this music had come to stand for. It was her dream-life, a life she might have had if she had been born elsewhere. She allowed herself to live for a time each day in a pure fantasy in which she could have learned the cello as a child and then been photographed as this young woman was, eager and talented and in full possession of her world…”
From start to end spans a 3 year period and the changes in Nora’s life. It’s full of Irish culture and I am always on board for reading a book with an Irish setting.
I would certainly read more by Colm Toibin.
A hot stew would do the trick in Enniscorthy. Check out the recipe at squirrel Head Manor and make a big pot for the chilly evenings. Please note I adapted the recipe and used quite a few mushrooms. Great addition!
The voice of the book is Nora. Colm writes very well -- I always wonder how he can be so convincing in the telling of a story of a woman. It is the same in his other book, Brooklyn.
I will recommend to my book club for next years readings.
Nora Webster, about 40 years old, has been recently widowed. Her husband, beloved by the small community in which she lives, is sorely missed by everyone, the townspeople, her children and herself. As she tries to come to terms with her new situation, she is a bit unprepared for the future. Financially she is not secure. Emotionally she is not yet comfortable. She muddles through the days and weeks making decisions, perhaps only she will regret, for she discovers, slowly, that no one can judge her any longer or influence her any longer. She is truly on her own if she wishes it. Sometimes she is not sure which situation she prefers, having someone to consult or consulting no one.
As a character, Nora is so clearly drawn that you can almost join her on most of her excursions, sitting next to her or standing nearby, like an imaginary friend observing her from a short distance. She navigates through her days as bits of memory rise up, sparked by different remarks or events taking place in the moment, a glance from someone, a place she remembers, a bit of melody she hears, a child’s reaction, a comment from a former colleague of her husband, a face in the crowd that reminds her of someone or something, for at any moment, something may jog her memory and take her back to her grief. She does not really seem that connected to her children, and yet she is quite aware of and very sensitive to their feelings. She tries to confront the children’s needs based on her own background and thus, having had an overbearing mother, she maintains more space between herself and them, often letting things simply work out by themselves or deciding on a course of action and quickly changing her mind with some abandon. At times her behavior seemed to be a sign of not wanting to be involved, or of a bit of laziness, selfishness or weakness, but in the end, her decisions were her own, she owned up to them and made them work. She often questioned herself and her ability to guide the family. Her husband, Maurice, was more involved with major decisions than she had been and she was often at a loss as to how to proceed. Some of her decisions were impetuous and not well thought out, but she had to live with them. She grew stronger as time went by and she came into her own, realizing her own abilities and strengths. A different Nora is developing and roaming free, a Nora her husband would never have known nor possibly appreciated.
Nora as an independent woman is very different than the Nora who was happily married. She realizes that there were parts of her personality that remained dormant under the thumbs of those around her who were stronger. Alone, she looks for, finds and grows into herself, finding pleasure in surprising places and comfort in her individuality and even her loneliness. She surprises herself with her confidence and strength.
On the negative side, I didn’t fee that comfortable with the conclusion, I felt as if it stopped at the edge of a cliff and didn’t go far enough. After introducing Aine’s political struggles, I would have liked to learn more about them. After watching Nora thrive, I would have liked to see if she continued to grow stronger and assume a more prominent place in the village. Would Donal lose his stammer and would the predictions of her husband, when he came to her in a dream come true? How would Conor fare? Who is the other? There were unanswered questions, with no hope of resolution, which left me hanging and a little disappointed. Otherwise, it was a really good story for a change, something interesting to ponder and not view as disguised trash.
This is a quiet tale of grief, motherhood and more. Tóibín portrays Nora as initially filled with self-doubt, second guessing her own decisions and actions. Gradually she gains confidence, part of which no doubt draws on the steely determination she manifested as a child. And so she draws upon her earlier incarnations of self as she moves toward a settled new form of being, after Maurice, and in her own right. Of especial note here is the sensitive way in which Tóibín deals with the two sons, Donal and Conor, both of whom have been greatly affected by the death of their father.
The writing is patient and lingering. It never feels as though Tóibín is forcing his own impressions on to Nora or the others. Their individual complexities are their own and he seems satisfied to merely relate them to us. Perhaps not as subtle and understated as his earlier novel, Brooklyn, but enticing all the same. Gently recommended.
"I knew that Nora was dealing with terrible grief, but much of her choice of action towards her children (and others) didn't seem to be necessarily connected with that but more to do with her abrasive and largely self-centred personality. Gradually I came to understand that she was in part reacting, unfortunately, against a childhood that was uncomfortable, but by the point that that little bit of information was revealed I was pretty much over her.
There's a strong possibility that I'm influenced by my own childhood experiences in this as I recognise my own emotionally disconnected mum (due to untreated anxiety & depression) in Nora and feel sad and fearful for her own children as a result.
The last quarter was an improvement, but overall I'm not tempted to run out and pick up another of this author's works."
Since sending through that email a few days ago I have come to feel strongly that my instinct regarding my personal family history was correct and it is the personal emotional discomfort this book caused me that lead me to an overall negative reaction. I have since heard that Tóibín wrote this over something like a decade and a bit and drew closely on his own childhood experience, so maybe he got it all out in the one book and I can try his other works without expecting to be brought face to face with my own, still intense it would seem, childhood-derived pain.
Some of our book club members had very positive reactions while others felt largely the same way I did, so it is fair to say that opinions vary and I would certainly not wish dissuade anyone from reading this and forming their own opinion.