Nuala O'Faolain is a rebel at heart, struggling to free herself from strictures placed on Irish women by the Church and Irish tradition, rules which judged a woman...

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Nuala O’Faolain is a rebel at heart, struggling to free herself from strictures placed on Irish women by the Church and Irish tradition, rules which judged a woman by this harsh question: If a woman chose not to marry and bear children, what was she good for? O’Faolain, one of 13 children, nine of whom survived, had an alcoholic mother and a wandering father. She was determined not to replicate that life.


In two well-received memoirs, “Are You Somebody?” and its sequel, “Almost There,” O’Faolain has written of her struggle to overcome her background and her response to the success of her first memoir. Her novel, “My Dream of You,” examines some of the same themes.


“The Story of Chicago May” (Riverhead, 320 pp., $24.95) is a departure; the biography of an Irish bad girl who stole her family’s savings and left home in the 1890s for America, where she became a prostitute, a penny-ante crook, thief and blackmailer. Her good looks got her into a chorus line, but she was at her best playing the “badger game,” preying upon susceptible men and leaving them poorer for the encounter.


Author appearance


Nuala O’Faolain will read from “The Story of Chicago May,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

She married, divorced and then fell in love with a dangerous crook, Eddie Guerin, who robbed the Paris American Express Office. He was captured and May got away. Out of some sense of misguided loyalty, May returned to France to help Eddie, and they both ended up in prison. When she emerged, she took up with Eddie again and then, in typically mercurial fashion, informed on him. He hired a young American, Charley, to disfigure her. He fell in love with her instead, shot Eddie, and everyone went to prison again.


Much of what happens in May’s life is nearly unbelievable, but O’Faolain is at great pains to quote from May’s own memoirs as well as newspaper accounts of the time to verify events. May, in broken health in a prison hospital, is visited by a delegation from Hollywood expecting to find Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. They find May instead.


O’Faolain portrays the American underworld and its denizens in all their squalor, opulence, decadence, and high- and low-living. In addition, she weaves her own story in and out of May’s, comparing personal motivations and feelings which she imputes to May. This practice is occasionally jarring, especially when she flies in the face of all internal evidence and insists that May really wanted to have a child. Despite mostly valiant attempts to be faithful to May’s story, the narrative feels forced and flat, more Nuala O’Faolain than May Duignan.