When Prince Charming never comes

By any outsider's measure, Nuala O'Faolain has achieved impressive success. More than a decade ago, after a stint as an award-winning television producer in her native Ireland, she became a well-known opinion columnist for the Irish Times. It is, she says, a "terribly prestigious job," giving her national influence that sometimes extends all the way to the Irish Parliament.

But work counts for only part of a full life, and in her own eyes, Ms. O'Faolain wonders if she is a failure. Why? Because she has never married or had children. She lacks what has traditionally mattered to women and what has mattered to her during most of her life.

Over the years there were love affairs and failed romances. But no husband, no babies, no family circle of her own to share both trials and triumphs.

Now in her 50s, O'Faolain still longs for love, yearns for intimacy, and struggles with the reality of being alone. She also rails against a particular kind of invisibility. "The world doesn't go up to middle-aged women and tap them on the shoulder and say, 'The world would like to hear your story,'" she says.

O'Faolain decided to tell her story anyway. Her extremely candid book, "Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman," quickly became a publishing sensation in Ireland and a bestseller in the United States and Australia.

As she sees it, a woman past the age when she might be considered a sexual partner simply "turns into a silhouette" in the eyes of others. There is nothing of the silhouette in O'Faolain, a spirited, attractive, fiercely intelligent woman with a ready sense of humor. Yet even she, who so confidently expresses opinions in her column, confesses that she had to take a writing course to learn how to use "I" in her book.

"You don't end up a middle-aged Irish woman feeling confident about the first-person singular," she tells an audience at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., during a US book tour.

When O'Faolain also tells the group that "I have prayed for love, if not to receive it, at least to give it," one sympathetic woman suggests that perhaps she could consider her book, with all its gratifying success, a "child" of sorts. Not really. Another woman encourages O'Faolain to "love a plant for now." As for her dog Molly and cat Hodge, who were her only companions on Christmas Day three years ago, she says simply, "Nothing against the dog and the cat, but they don't even know it's Christmas."

O'Faolain is hardly ungrateful. She praises the braveness of widows and widowers and the resourcefulness of people in general. She gives thanks for blessings in her own life. She finds pleasure in music and books. "If there were nothing else, reading would - obviously - be worth living for," she writes. Ever the realist, she also knows that loneliness exists within relationships.

No generation or gender has a corner on aloneness - or loneliness. As lifespans lengthen and as more men and women reject or delay marriage, get divorced, and spend years alone between marriages or after widowhood, people of all ages will be forced to grapple with singlehood. The subject is long overdue for open discussion.

For now, when O'Faolain returns home and asks the cat and dog if any Prince Charming has come down the chimney while she was out, she knows the answer is no. But in giving voice to the universal longing for companionship and closeness, and in articulating the challenges of women like herself who are "nobody's mother," "nobody's wife," and "nobody's lover," she encourages a quiet self-examination that might bring some closer to a measure of contentment, whatever their marital status.

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