There are many things about My Coney Island Baby that initially appealed to me. I do love a circadian novel and am fond of books that explore the lives and loves of the middle-aged. When I read Susan’s review over at A Life in Books, I knew this was one for me.
Michael, an Irish emigrant now living in New York, and Caitlin, an Irish-American whose dreams of becoming a successful writer are rapidly diminishing, have been lovers for twenty-five years. They meet just once a month at Coney Island, escaping the unhappiness of their daily lives and unhappy marriages for a snatched afternoon together. The novel unfolds over one such afternoon, opening as they battle against the inclement weather to their hotel and ending on their train journey back to New York.
This room, he decides, will be sufficient for their needs, but only because they have carried love in here with them, in them.
Michael and Caitlin met in a bar a quarter of a decade ago when Michael was coming to terms with the death of his baby son. Caitlin’s writing career was starting to take off and something between them clicked. What begins as lust has grown into deep love and the pair share everything of themselves with the other, talking about their past and their hopes and fears. They know that they should be together, but that they have ‘stepped wrong and lost out on a soul connection’, yet neither wants to risk the lives they have on something that might not work when thrust into the banality of everyday life.
Life though, is pushing them towards a decision, as Michael’s wife Barb has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Caitlin’s husband is planning to take a new job in Illinois.
The end times have never felt closer than now but, with these few hours available to them, there’ll be time enough for the hard words and the different flavours of goodbye.
The narrative circles back to the past, moving from the Coney Island hotel room to the lives that have brought Caitlin and Michael here. Michael remembers life on Inishbofin in Ireland and the last time he saw his father. Caitlin thinks of her drunken mother and Pete, her brief stepfather who caused so much happiness but also so much pain. Both Michael and Caitlin are displaced, from their pasts and their presents, feeling that the only time they are living a true life is during the brief time they spend together.
O’Callaghan writes beautifully about middle age – the sense of duty to a life built versus the realisation that time is running out and passion is fading. The couple note the changes in each other’s bodies over the years, changes that only deepen their love for one another as their choices about their future fade.
The prose here is elegiac and lyrical and O’Callaghan has a beautiful descriptive voice. Caitlin’s mouth has ‘the heat of tea’ while time is ‘a shard of glass embedded in the neck of the day’. The novel feels timeless, not only because of a lack of reference to technology, but because it focuses solely on the realm of the heart and emotion.
It is an unashamedly romantic book – there is nothing here about the practicalities of carrying out an affair for over twenty years – and some may take issue with the celebration of a love that is causing so much pain to other people, but O’Callaghan balances it well. My Coney Island Baby explores the realities of middle age, the shadows cast by the past and the uncertainty of the future with an emotional intensity and lyrical beauty that is irresistible.
When Caitlin catches his eye, he smiles wearily, ‘Getting old.’ ‘Yes. And grey and full of sleep. But the tune is still sweet.’ He nods. ‘Sometimes. When I can play it.’
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!