Saturday 17 February 2018

Books: Secrets and separation lead to family conflicts in Swinging Sixties

Fiction: A Letter from America, Geraldine O'Neill, Poolbeg, tpbk, 386 pages, €16.99

Heartwarming stories: Geraldine O'Neill
Heartwarming stories: Geraldine O'Neill
A Letter from America by Geraldine O'Neill

Ann Dunne

Geraldine O'Neill began immersing readers in nostalgia when her first novel Tara Flynn was published in 2002. Since then, O'Neill's thought-provoking and heartwarming stories, set in the 1950s and 1960s, have built her a huge fan-base among readers of all ages.

A Letter From America, details how secrets and separation can lead to conflict in families. It begins in 1968, when a new wave of fashion and culture is clashing with more traditional values. In Tullamore, Fiona Tracey is packed and ready to join her friend Elizabeth, who is working for a wealthy family in New York. But her plans are shelved when her father dies suddenly and Fiona is left to run the family shop and bar, while her mother, Nance, languishes in bed. Her aunt Catherine and cousin Joseph offer help but Nance rejects them.

Fiona's two sisters are unavailable. Bridget is in a convent preparing to be a nun and Angela lives and works in Dublin where she spent much of her childhood hospitalised with polio. Fiona envies their independence. She feels her life closing in on her until a handsome American arrives and there is a spark between them.

Meanwhile, Angela lands an exciting new job living and working in a large house in Dublin, as a private secretary to retired British army Major Harrington. This involves trips to England and Angela experiences the heady excitement of London in the late 60s. When she comes for a weekend to give Fiona a break, she realises how much her sister has had to give up, which brings them closer.

The three sisters are mystified at the rift which is deepening between Nance and her only sister, Catherine. Each of them has overheard and kept to themselves small snippets of information. It is only when Angela meets Catherine's estranged and slightly drunk husband in London, he divulges a secret, which readers will have already worked out, that could destroy the whole family. It might be the Swinging Sixties in London, but not in Tullamore. Long-held attitudes die hard and it is up to the younger generation to heal old wounds and learn from the mistakes of their parents as they build their own lives.

O'Neill takes us back to the days of Babycham, miniskirts, slacks, fountain pens and airmail letters with this compelling 11th novel, which is bound to follow her others into the bestseller charts.

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