Around the Bookstore: Author Maggie O’Farrell

On the humanity of best-selling authors.


A few days ago, a customer asked for a recommendation for a good historical novel; I asked whether she had read either “Hamnet” or “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell. She had read neither, so I showed her both. “The Marriage Portrait” was her selection.

The first 16 or so pages of “Hamnet,” a description of how the plague arrived in England during Shakespeare’s time, is some of the most riveting prose I have ever read, worth the price of the book for its mesmerizing beauty. “Marriage Portrait” is the story of Lucrezia de Medici, married off to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. A year later she was dead, likely at her husband’s hands.

Great, interesting books, but the customer also asked me a question about who Maggie O’Farrell is, and I realized I had just the roundest bits of knowledge — she’s British, and has a way with words, to say the least.

Setting out to find out more, I discovered a complex woman, with more books to her than “Hamnet” and “The Marriage Portrait”: a woman born in Northern Ireland, who moved to England when she was 2, who suffered bullying Irish jokes as a child. “O’Farrell? Is your father in the IRA?” Ha ha ha …

Like Joe Biden, she is a stammerer, still suffers from it; worst memory was stammering on a radio program, a memory that causes her to break out in a cold sweat, even now, years later.

She has very, very, very unruly hair.

At 8, she had viral encephalitis, was told she’d never walk again, but did. Reading interviews with her, you find steel slightly hidden behind British wit, which becomes not unsurprising when you read the strength in her writing. This is a woman who has lived and overcome, and continues to do so.

From being a journalist in Hong Kong to an awardwinning author, there is a life journey with its own novelistic turns and twists.

Behind every author there is a person, and often we don’t think of that person beyond the words on their pages — but there is a person who lives, breathes, eats, loves, hurts, and copes with life while working at their art. Certainly, Maggie O’Farrell is an author who is human in her strengths and frailties, who finds joy in swimming with her children, needs a breath of the outside every day, a need that if denied, makes for a cranky person and author.

One child has severe allergies, bad enough for her to cry while helping her deal with them.

In an interview with the Guardian Newspaper on March 25, O’Farrell was asked, “What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?” She answered, “To keep going and never give up, and to enjoy it to the absolute full, because, at any moment, the curtain can fall.”

That’s so true, Ms. O’Farrell, it’s a lesson we hear from you and others, and find so hard to take to heart.

And one thing is certain, the curtain will fall. As it did on poor Lucrezia, much too soon.

So glad to have met you, Maggie O’Farrell.

Mathew Tombers is the manager of Edgartown Books.