The Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly #memoir

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver, Poet

Outdoor MassageA few years ago a lady who had recently moved here to Aix-en-Provence contacted me in relation to Flairesse, my aromatherapy therapeutic massage business. She became a regular client and over time I got to know her well, discovering a mutual interest in culture, books and writing. She had a strong passion for travel, the lives of others and the excitement of discovery, which was the name of a blog she’d set up to keep a record of her adventures while living in France.

I learned that she was writing a book, which had initially been planned to be a collection of a dozen or so stories she had related to her clients over the years, (she had been a Marriage and Family Counsellor for 30 years in Southern California) these stories had been her way to illustrate a particular teaching, something she had found that people absorbed more easily through storytelling than being given the lesson directly.

However, and given her adventurous spirit, it came as no surprise to me, once she sat down to write it, she realised that looking back and recounting the past, the stories she had spent 30 years narrating, no longer excited her, so she decided to change direction and push her focus forward, towards the unknown lifescape before her and share this grand adventure she had embarked on, three years after her retirement, at the unstoppable age of seventy-eight.

Every month, I would hear how the book was progressing and I’d also hear about Karin’s latest travels, culinary adventures, her move to a quieter apartment, her daily five Tibetans rites of rejuvenation ritual, and always that infectious laugh and sense of fun she had about life. I lent her a few writing books and then suggested she might like to enter The Good Life France writing competition, 1,000 words about France – about memories, a favourite place, or something you love about France.

good lifeExcited about the opportunity to put her writing skills to the test, Karin took the first chapter of her book, moulded it as much as she could to meet the criteria, sent it to me to look over and to make recommendations on how to whittle it down further without losing any of the content and then sent it off! We came up with the title ‘Scattered Dreams’ and a few weeks later heard the fantastic news, a confirmation if ever any was needed of how realistic this dream was in coming to fruition, that she had won first prize! She was now published and on her way to fulfilling that goal of becoming an inspirational author.

And so, today I am delighted to be able to introduce you now to published author Karin Crilly, and the book that made its first chapter appearance in The Good Life France where it was so fabulously awarded the recognition it deserved – The Blue Satin Nightgown, My French Makeover at Age 78.

I had to share this photo which Karin sent me one night as I was scribbling notes over one of her chapters in the book, (after that first success, I read all her manuscript and tried to concentrate on making notes for feedback, which was difficult, as her stories were so entertaining and often had me open-mouthed in surprise).

She’d told me she was going to an Elton John concert earlier in the evening and then later this picture arrived, showing her accepting a lift home from Xavier – the husband of her friend Marie-Paule, a couple who became like family to her –  it so depicts the excitement and sense of adventure Karin was always up for and no wonder her book is so full of laughs and the pure delight of living life to the full.

The Blue Satin Nightgown is an enchanting, easy reading memoir of Karin’s two years based here in the small town of Aix-en-Provence, taking us through both the trials and delights of her attempt to integrate into French culture, finding an apartment, discovering the markets, learning French cuisine – though she is already an excellent cook, and shares some new and favourite recipes throughout the book.

She attracts men without trying and there are many entertaining chapters of close encounters and demonstrations of what we might refer to as, the French culture’s ‘art of seduction‘, a term that doesn’t have the same meaning in English, more of a natural charm that often surpasses the boundaries of the Anglo-American experience and is practised by young and old.

One of the endearing aspects of Karin’s writing and of her character is her ability to look at herself and see how she reacts in certain situations, to talk to herself as if she were one of her own clients. She brings a natural and gracious wisdom to the page and often thought back to wonder how her late husband Bill, to whom she dedicated the book, would have responded to what she had experienced and often asked herself what lesson she needed to learn. She finds wisdom not just in her own encounters, but by maintaining a strong and positive link to her loved one, a memory that never held her back, one she found a way to help push her forward and kept at her side, without ever succumbing to grief or self-pity.

Karin is not just an inspiration to those in their seventies or those who have lost a life partner, she is an inspiration to all of us, who have ever thought about doing something a little adventurous or extraordinary.

When my husband died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if I could still be extraordinary. I had expended so much energy being his caregiver for eighteen years, the last five years of which demanded my entire being. After grieving for several years, I retired from thirty years of counselling. I needed to reinvent my life. I believed what I have always known: that the true self is presented  with ideas that it is capable of fulfilling.

When I received the call at age seventy-eight, I remembered my clients and my advice to them.  And I said YES!

Karin Crilly, Introduction, The Blue Satin Nightgown

Buy a copy of Karin’s The Blue Satin Nightgown via Book Depository here (affiliate link)

or Buy a Kindle E- book version here




Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy was the last book I read, as 2015 came to a close and a fitting end it was, as it opens at the funeral and wake of a man called Billy, a man who over-comforted himself with drink, for reasons that everyone present was happy to speculate on, most of them coming to the conclusion , that he’d never got over the fiancée that returned to Ireland with his ring and a promise to join him soon.

Close friends and family come together to mourn and remember Billy, this man of Irish descent who fell for Eva one summer, who promised himself to her and sent her the money he’d borrowed from his new boss, so she could return to him after she went back to Ireland.

It had been a short romance, but one that everyone present at his wake had an opinion on, yet no one appeared to have known the full truth of what really transpired. This becomes even more clear as the novel progresses towards the memory of Billy’s trip to Ireland about 30 years later, truth confronting him in a way grief could not.

Charming BillyThe novel unfolds and weaves like threads in a tapestry, as characters share their understanding of Billy, their memories of his charm and inclinations and what they knew about the short-lived romance with the Irish girl Eva.

They debate whether Billy’s demise and descent into alcoholism was part of who he was or the consequence of the heartbreak he had endured over the years, despite his marriage to Maeve, the widow, like wallpaper adorning the kitchen, witnesses all, but sits quietly in the background of this narrative.

“There was tremendous affection in Billy’s eyes, or at least they held a tremendous offer of affection, a tremendous willingness to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most.”

Slowly it creates a picture of a life and all lives, how they are formed, changed, steered by certain events, fractured by grief, sustained by community, vulnerable to and comforted by addiction, driven by faith, seduced by deception.

‘In the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs are small and personal, whose trials are ordinary enough, as tempered in their pain as in their resolution of pain, the claim of exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion.’

Much of the novel is narrated by the daughter of Dennis, Billy’s cousin. Dennis was close to Billy, they were together when that summer when they met the two girls Mary and Eva, at Dennis’s mother and stepmother’s holiday home, a place Billy would never return to, perhaps due to those memories, and a location that provides something of a twist near the end.

A nostalgic tale, imbued with sadness, post war expectations and a new world Irish charm, it carries a sense of stepping back in time, of being on the threshold of a new modern era, Billy, one of the last links to a bygone era.

It read like a tapestry, one story viewed through various perspectives, so we go over events again and again, as seen by numerous characters, like colourful threads in a tableau.

I picked this book up from the library after it had been highly recommended to me, I have another of her books on the shelf Someone, a 1920’s Irish-American coming-of-age portrait of a woman’s life through childhood, adolescence, motherhood and old age.

Have you read any of Alice McDermott’s work?

The Closet of Savage Mementos by Nuala Ní Chonchúir & A Peek at What the Irish are Reading

After seeing her list of Books of the Year for 2014 published in the Irish Times, I remembered how much I admire Eileen Battersby’s articles and her choice of books to read and review.

The Captain's DaughterEven today, when I skim the reviews featured by the Irish Times, the one I click on, sure enough, is written by Eileen Battersby and reading it makes me think perhaps I could start 2015 the same way I started 2014, with Alexander Pushkin, here she describes his novel The Captain’s Daughter, republished in September 2014 in the NYRB Classic series, as a masterclass in storytelling.

Wednesday's Child

The critically acclaimed Number 1 Bestseller I’d never heard of!

So back when her Books of the Year came out, I had a look around the rest of the Books Section of the Irish Times, in part intrigued recalling a family member visiting via a short stopover in Ireland last summer and bringing bestselling books I had never heard of.

A History of LonelinessI was interested to read about their new book club and experience of reading John Boynes novel of a priest, A History of Loneliness and the intelligent, respectful way their readers are able to discuss and disagree in comments without resorting to the kind of insulting rhetoric that stops me from reading comments on most other mainstream media.

This month they are reading Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s The Closet of Savage Mementos, an author and a book I had not heard of, so after reading the blurb which sounded appealing and said to be inspired in part by the authors own experiences, I jumped right in.Irish Times Book Club

The Blurb

Lillis takes a summer job working at a lodge in a small lochside village in the Scottish Highlands. Leaving home is a way to escape her sorrow and despair following the death of her boyfriend and a testy relationship with her mother, Verity.

In Scotland she encounters love and excitement but when a series of unexpected events turn her new found life on its head, she is forced to make a life-changing decision, one that will stay with her for her whole life.

My Review

Divided into two parts, Book One takes place in 1991 when Lillis is almost 21-years-old and in the throes of grief, after the death of her close childhood friend Donal, early on New Year’s Day.

She had already made plans to leave Dublin and take up a waitressing job in Kinlochbrack, a fishing village in Scotland and it is while living there, that she moves through the phases of grief and denial, falling quickly into a new relationship with her boss, 51-year-old Struan Torrance.

Lillis was ready to leave Dublin, her mother Verity a constant source of irritating worry, her father relatively inaccessible, having remarried and busy working and raising two small boys with his new wife; her brother responding reluctantly to her requests for help when asked, otherwise living a somewhat selfish, disinterested existence.

Here is their conversation when he tells Lillis he’s thinking of going to San Francisco, where all the girls wear flowers in their hair, and the boys too, hopefully, he added.

‘Shut up. You’re just pissed off because you’ll be stuck here forever.’ Robin flipped open his lighter.

‘I won’t, you know. I’ve got a summer job lined up in Scotland.’ I put down my glass.

‘You sneaky bitch. How did you get that? We can’t both go away.’

‘Look, at the moment I need your help with Verity. Promise me you’ll go to the house and talk to her. We can head out together.’

‘Lord, you’re so bossy. Is that why you arranged to meet me, to bully me into being our mother’s saviour?’

In Scotland Lillis has her job, her new boyfriend, instant friends at work, hills to climb and roam, the loch to visit; in her head she often revisits her enduring friendship with Donal, he becomes a resting place in her mind she constantly retreats to, as if waiting for the present to overtake these thoughts yet wondering if that will ever be the case.

It is about the unconscious effect of grief and shows how Lillis fulfills the need that arises from it, trying to fill the gaping hole left by the death of someone so familiar, mixed with the separation from family, a father who is elsewhere. She does things unconsciously and in Book Two, she will awaken from her emotional slumber with an earth shattering jolt.

Things end badly for Lillis in Scotland and after a short spell in Glasgow she returns to Dublin. We don’t learn what happened until she is a 40-year-old woman reflecting on the past, as it suddenly is brought into her present by events.

I don’t wish to reveal what happened in case you decide to read the book, an excellent reason for this to have been chosen as a book club book, as it prompts some very interesting questions about so many issues that will make it an interesting discussion.

“Just like when Donal died, I was pulled tight between forgetting and remembering. Any sense of myself as a competent human being, with things to do and achieve, had left me.”

Book two begins 20 years later, Lillis is pregnant and about to give birth to a daughter, her supportive and loving husband at her side. The pregnancy, birth and raising of the child induce a form of post natal depression and bring back memories and force her to address issues she had chosen to bury deep within her for the last twenty years. Much of it to do with being a mother, believing she had come from a long line of woman who were bad mothers.

“It occurs to me that I might be like Verity – exasperation was her fallback position, her natural state as a parent. Everything Robin and I did irritated her. She roared at us from one end of the day to the other….

Verity held the neglect she learned as a daughter to her heart and carried it forward to her own parenting. I do not want to be the mother that Verity was to me.”

It is a realistic novel with much to discuss and reflect on, both the decisions we make as individuals and those that we make due to the pressures of family and society.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir writes in a style that makes the reader feel right there in the room with her characters, the voices are authentic, the emotions vivid and sometimes disturbing, it’s like being in the front row of a theatrical production, even though the characters are over there, we feel the force of every word uttered and action taken and will likely need to talk about the experience with a friend when it’s over.

If you read it between now and mid-January you can join in or follow the book club discussion at The Irish Times (see the link below).

Miss EmilyMiss Emily

To be published under her original birth name, Nuala O’Connor, (Nuala Ní Chonchúir) has a novel due out in May 2015 called Miss Emilya dual narrative story told alternately from the point of view of Ada (the maid) and Emily Dickinson, the film rights of which have already been acquired.

An author to watch out for!


The Irish Times Book Club

The History of Loneliness

In the Springtime of the Year

I seem to have been reading through the seasons this year, starting with Edith Wharton’s winter read ‘Ethan Frome’ then Susan Hill’s ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ and finally Wharton’s ‘Summer’. I don’t know yet what will appear for the one season that is missing but I am open to suggestions, is there a title that comes to mind for Autumn, the Fall? I am sure one must exist.

‘In the Springtime of the Year’ is a metaphor for existence, growth and renewal; after one dreamy year of marriage in which no one else but her husband seems to exist for the young bride, 19-year-old Ruth has become a widow, after Ben is killed in a freak accident. The pages carry us through Ruth’s grief, the calm, dormant stillness where she is frozen in her grief, unable to cry or speak, or be comforted by anyone. She doesn’t understand why they don’t understand this. While her husband’s family pour out their grief vociferously, they judge her silence as showing no feeling. Slowly her awareness returns and rises to the surface, she begins to see beyond her own immovable pain, to appreciate anew all that is around her, she is able to revisit the scene without suffering.

Susan Hill deftly captures each nuance of the young girl’s slow changing movement through her phases of grief, until like the branches of the tree that must eventually bud no matter how harsh the winter, she transforms and begins to emit a different vibe. She is witness to what she was and sees it anew; she develops an understanding for how others may have perceived her. She is able to make amends.

Rambling along in its quiet way, poetic line by line, Ruth’s perceptions change so subtly that when there is an actual event, it seems all the more dramatic for its contrast with the inner world we have been languishing within.

I first read of Susan Hill in a profile interview in Mslexia Magazine in January 2011, she had just published ‘A Kind Man’ and while visiting Daunt Books in London that same month, I spotted the slim hardback, which thanks to the lovely G and an approaching birthday came home with me along with Jenny Erpenbeck’sVisitation’. Since ‘A Kind Man’ I have equally enjoyed ‘The Beacon’ and ‘The Woman in Black’ and recognise that it is her style of writing that appeals so much.  This book was originally published in 1974 and has been rereleased in this Vintage edition.

All the books are situated similarly, in a small, poor village in rural England where not much happens except that we become witness to the inner transformation of characters after an event.  I would not suggest you read this however, if you’re looking for action, pace or plot, this is an inner journey. And it’s perfect as it is.