Catherine Dunne is a very gifted writer on the literary end of the popular fiction spectrum. A former teacher in the same school as Roddy Doyle on Dublin’s northside, she has seven highly praised novels to her name.
Despite critical success, however, she has never managed to get into the same sales league in Ireland as someone like Marian Keyes or Maeve Binchy. But although less well-known on her home turf, it’s a different story in other countries. In Italy, for example, she is huge.
Her early novels were already doing well there when she got an unexpected publicity boost, which propelled her to the top of the Italian bestseller lists. It was prompted by a gaffe by Silvio Berlusconi on Italian TV when the cameras caught him chatting up a former Miss Amazonia.
It was just one in a long series of embarrassments suffered by Berlusconi’s now ex-wife, Veronica Lario, who expressed her pain in a letter splashed across the front of Italian newspapers, demanding a public apology.
At the time, Lario had been reading Dunne’s 1997 novel In The Beginning, about a woman whose husband suddenly leaves her. “I ask if, like the Catherine Dunne character, I have to regard myself as ‘half of nothing’,” she wrote. Italian women were intrigued and Dunne’s books soared up the charts.
Dunne’s latest novel, The Things We Know Now, is also in this familiar world of failed relationships, of raw emotion and human vulnerability.
Patrick Grant‘s first wife, Cecilia, dies suddenly from a massive heart attack. Patrick had been a philandering husband, something that their eldest daughter Rebecca cannot forgive him for.
Patrick then meets Ella, a much younger, easygoing psychotherapist, and they start a new life together. When Ella gives birth to Daniel, the couple’s happiness seems complete.
Meanwhile, Rebecca’s own life mirrors that of her mother when she discovers that her husband Adam is having an affair. Just like Cecilia, Rebecca tries to ignore his infidelities and play happy families to the world.
The story is told in several narrative voices – Patrick’s, Rebecca’s, Daniel’s, Ella’s, some of the minor characters’ – and Dunne skillfully weaves their tales together. She is brilliant at giving women their own unhappy, conformist lives, but never quite urging them to throw down their dishcloths and actually walk out on their marriages, their lives. Her work returns again and again to the same themes: desperate housewives and ordinary families torn apart by complex forces.
The book reaches a terrible climax at the halfway mark. Rebecca’s husband ups and leaves her. Daniel experiences particularly vicious cyber bullying, with a tragic result.
The ending is redemptive, if not quite happy and neat. As ever, Dunne has taken a controversial topic and galloped with it, leaving her readers breathless and, crucially, full of questions.
It’s certain to be a hit in Italy. It’s about time Irish readers woke up to how good she is.