Becoming Nora

Book Review of Nora Webster” by Colm Tóibín.

ff06f-nora2bwebsterEveryone loved Maurice Webster. While she was married to him, Nora lived quietly in his shadow. Then he fell ill, and as his death approached, Nora was totally devoted, practically ignoring her sons and daughters in order to care for him. Now that he’s gone, Nora has become something of a tragic celebrity. More importantly, now Nora has to find a new normal for both herself and her children.

This is one of those gently moving novels where some critics might say, “Nothing happens.” To tell the truth, there isn’t a whole lot of action here, but that doesn’t really matter. What Tóibín has done here is give us a beautifully formed character driven story that helps us watch one woman as she learns to cope with her new reality. In her sons, we see the death of their father affected them. As for her daughters – now grown and no longer living at home – we witness how they react to the changes in their mother. Most importantly, we watch Nora pull herself back to life and getting on with living without the man she loved.

Everything here is very subtle. From Nora’s getting a job with the company she worked for before she was married and had children, to her learning about music and singing, and discovering an interest in something she didn’t know she enjoyed. While all of this slowly unfolds, Tóibín makes us realize that Maurice did not have anything to do with Nora’s being so unassuming, nor that she was unhappy with her life before he became sick. Instead, we get the feeling that Nora liked being on the sidelines. Forced into center stage, however, Nora realizes that there is, and always was, more to her than meets the eye. Despite some bumps and troubles along the way, including the social, economic and political problems of Ireland in the 1960s, Nora seems mostly up to the task. Even when she stumbles, she does it with grace. Because of all this, together with Tóibín’s tranquil writing style, Nora comes across as one of the most empathetic characters I’ve ever read.

As glowing as all this sounds, I have to say that I felt something was missing with this book. While it is obvious that Tóibín adores his Nora, maybe he cared for her a little bit too much. This could be the reason why I felt some restraint in his portrait of her, as if he didn’t want everyone to know absolutely everything about her. Of course, mystery being the spice of life, holding some things back allows the reader to use their imagination, and come to their own conclusions about certain aspects of Nora. However, I think there’s a fine line between mystery and being overly reticent, which I think Tóibín overstepped just a tiny bit. Because of this, there were times when no matter how much I liked Nora, she seemed a touch too cold for my taste. On the other hand, a gut-wrenching emotional outburst would have been terribly out of character.

Despite this, I still enjoyed reading this book very much. Let’s face it; I’m staunch anglophile, with a particular love of Ireland. That means practically any work set there is going to get my attention. Of course, a poorly written work will turn me off immediately, and in that, Tóibín certainly didn’t disappoint even one iota. His writing is as beautiful as the country itself. I also loved watching Nora gradually grow into the person she probably always was, and realizing that along the way, she was learning to appreciate herself and even trust her judgment. For all of this I have to take off half a star in my rating because of the slightly reserved feeling Tóibín gives us, but I can still warmly recommend this novel.


“Nora Webster” by Colm Tóibín is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (Inc., Canada and Australia), the website, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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