July 2024

Woman of Interest

By Tracy O'Neill
Review by
Despite its snappy, hardboiled style, Tracy O'Neill's memoir is a deeply human story of a search for home.
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Raised by vivacious and uncompromising Irish American parents in Massachusetts, Tracy O’Neill did not spend much time thinking about her Korean birth mother or the circumstances of her adoption until the COVID-19 pandemic made her suddenly wonder whether the mother she never knew might, in fact, be about to die alone. Her mother became her “woman of interest,” and O’Neill’s hardboiled detective-style memoir details her journey through her own personal history—and eventually to South Korea—to find her.

Many memoirs offer a carefully rendered picture of past events, with a tight thematic focus. O’Neill is after something different with Woman of Interest. By choosing the tone of a noir, she inhabits a narrative space full of macabre humor, plot twists and offbeat characters. Her sentences run to the jangling and unpredictable rhythms of the classic detective story, with spare descriptions and snappy, deadpan dialogue: “So you graduated?” a social worker who handles adoptions asks O’Neill. “Good for you. A lot of the children don’t graduate.” The author uses the genre’s tropes—chapter titles include “Leave No Witness,” “Red Herring” and “A Stranger Comes to Town”—to recast the story of her life as a kind of meta-nonfiction: “I could confuse my life for experimental literature with possibilities of diffuse narrative perspectives,” she writes, “but it still adhered to realism.”

O’Neill’s journey is confusing, overwhelming and deeply human. It is the story not only of an adopted child facing the essential questions of all adopted children, but also, and more universally, the story of a search for home. As such, the phrase “woman of interest” applies to O’Neill as well as her mother. Through describing interactions with her family, her friends, her beloved dog, Cowboy, and an earthy, semi-wild boyfriend whom she refers to as N., O’Neill reports on a quest that, while uniquely her own in terms of form and content, is also relatable to anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and wondered, “Who am I, really? And who are my people?”


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Woman of Interest

Woman of Interest

By Tracy O'Neill
ISBN 9780063309869

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