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by Emma Donoghue
Alyson Publications, 1994
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 30th 2001


This story of seventeen-year-old Maria's first term at university is a charming coming-of-age tale. Maria (rhyming with pariah) moves from her home in the Irish countryside to the big city of Dublin. Needing a place to live, and without much thought, she moves in with Ruth and Jael, two women several years older than her. Soon she comes to realize that Ruth and Jael are a couple, and Maria does not know how to react. But she likes the two of them a great deal, so she stays. They are a welcome contrast to the first-year-antics of the other people around her, and she often feels more comfortable with her house-mates than she does with her peers. Although she has a crush on a boy her own age, she surprises herself by pushing him away when he shows an interest in her. Soon enough, Maria is questioning her own sexual preferences.

Although there's a strong lesbian-related theme to this novel, it's by no means didactic, and author Emma Donoghue takes as much pleasure in describing life in Dublin, Maria's thoughts about her own family, the troubles in relationships, and the difficulties of sharing a house with a couple as she does in the romance. Much of the book is taken up with conversation, and she does a good job of conveying the Irish patterns of speech and turns of phrase, as well as the accent. The things that Maria worries about - romance, money, her studies, the politics of the personal, and her cooking - sound familiar and real. This is not a wildly ambitious novel, and it doesn't try to examine the human condition or the state of forbidden love at the end of the twentieth century; but it does well in providing an entertaining and touching story.

If I have any reservations about it, it is that it seems a little tame. Maria has plenty of common sense, but she seems sheltered and naïve about other parts of life. Of course, not every coming-of-age novel has to feature teen sex and promiscuity, and since Maria is from a very small town, it is perfectly fitting that she is not quite ready for city life when she first arrives. But even taking those factors into account, Maria lacks depth. But then, that is true of most seventeen-year-olds!

One aspect of Donoghue's writing that works well is her knack of entering into scenes when they are half-way through, which avoids the predictability of setting up each scene and having to play it out to its end. It makes the book all the more readable and engaging. I'll be interested to read the work she has written since this first novel was published in 1994. Kudos to Alyson Publications for bringing it back into print.

Author web site

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.


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