To movie buffs or people of a certain age, Billy O’Callaghan’s first literary novel will bring back memories of the Robert Mulligan film Same Time, Next Year, which traces an illicit love affair that gets renewed annually over the course of a quarter century. As you might guess, its sweeping arc encompasses huge changes in the couple’s emotional, political and financial circumstances. It’s a grand drama, aimed at the back of the house.
My Coney Island Baby swaps that film’s binoculars for a microscope, collapsing the history of Michael and Caitlin’s 25-year tryst into a single day, one that might turn out to be its last. Woven into the big secret that is their affair are two smaller secrets, unexploded emotional bombs set to detonate: Michael’s wife, Barbara, has been diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer, and Caitlin’s husband, Thomas, is on the brink of a promotion that would see the couple exiting New York City for Peoria, Illinois.
O’Callaghan slowly builds the tension as the novel alternates between Caitlin’s and Michael’s inner narratives until their relationship reaches a point of heat and overpressure, threatening to explode. In Caitlin’s words, “The world is turning at a thousand miles an hour. Sooner or later, we all get spun loose. No one avoids it forever, and nobody is ever prepared. And once it happens, all that remains are the things left unsaid, and the promises that can’t be kept.”
While some will likely draw comparisons with the work of Colm Tóibín (particularly Nora Webster), American readers might find Pat Conroy to be a more immediate touchstone. O’Callaghan has a keen sense of observation for emotional nuance, and his use of language is simply a delight to the mind’s ear; it’s impossible he could be anything other than Irish.
My Coney Island Baby is perfect for reading next to the fire on a gray day, snuggled under a blanket with a cup of tea or something a little stronger, as the wood and your dreams give off their last bit of heat before turning into smoke.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and will be celebrating 29 years of wedded bliss come summer.