Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BEST LOVE, ROSIE by Nuala O'Faolain

You may have to be at least 50 to understand how a book could be about aging and death and troubled relationships and failing bodies and eldercare and loneliness and depression and alcoholism - and still be not only inspiring but often very funny.

Of course, Best Love, Rosie is also about Ireland and New York and best friends and a good dog and silly self-help books, which lightens the tone.

Rosie, now in her mid 50s, has spent decades living anywhere but Ireland. Her most recent love affair clearly doomed, she decides it's time to return to Dublin to look after Min, her 69-year-old aunt, who alternates between too much time at the pub and too much time home in bed. But Min, suddenly transformed, flies to the United States, makes improbable friends, and begins enjoying life immensely, while Rosie turns to rehabbing an ancient house that once belonged to her long-dead grandparents.

At the same time, Rosie is trying to write a self-help booklet for middle-aged women. The problem is that her likely publisher is American, and - as Markey, an Irish-American friend of hers, keeps pointing out - Americans want dreams, not realism. Especially not realism about death. "No German thinkers," he tells Rosie when she attempts to quote one. "Particularly, no suicidal German thinkers. That is Rule Number One.... No Auschwitz survivors! That's Rule Number Two.... We're trying to sell to ... nice, open-faced women who look about fifty but are sixty-four, who still wear hats and are dear people and ignorant of bad things, Rosie."

This presents Rosie with a bit of a problem, especially when she's asked to suggest titles for the booklet. I once worked for a publisher on the other side of the pond whose self-help titles generally started with the word Coping. "American don't cope," I kept telling them: "we overcome!" Markey tries to convey the same message when Rosie suggests The Bittersweet Years, or Making the Best of the Middle Years, or Time to Destination. "Lay off the European gloom!" he orders.

Rosie does not have a Hollywood ending, but Rosie manages to escape the gloom. The book closes with several helpings of hope and love - enough to please Maeve Binchy's fans, but not so much as to put off people who find Binchy too sentimental. In the introduction, O'Faolain writes:
Best Love, Rosie - my fifth book in ten years - is the book of my years of commuting between the melancholy of Ireland and the optimism of America. It insists on celebrating what those years showed me. That the world in all its shades of black and white is wonderfully interesting. That sorrow can be managed: it can be banished to a minor place within. And that even the most seemingly moribund life is open to the possibility of change - in youth, in middle age, and always.
She wrote those words on January 14, 2008. On February 8, O'Faolain was diagnosed with lung cancer, which had spread to her brain and liver. Two months later, on April 13, she spoke extremely frankly in a Sunday Independent interview. When the interviewer asked her opinion on people who advise positive thinking as a coping mechanism, she responded: "Yeah, I was just reading about some best-selling man who says 'Live your dream to the end' and so on and I don't despise anyone who does, but I don't see it that way. Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."

O'Faolain died Friday, May 8, at age 68, less than four weeks after giving the interview. Her obituary in The Independent  noted that "during the months between her diagnosis and death, she had travelled to Paris, made a trip to see art works in Madrid and visited the Berlin Opera. Only the Sunday before her death, she had returned from her travels to Sicily with her sisters and close friends."

Best Love, Rosie was published posthumously.

I like to think that in the weeks between the despairing interview and her death, O'Faolain managed her sorrow and soaked up the love of her family and friends. I'm sure that if Rosie had contracted a fatal illness, that's how she would have wanted her to go.

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