Michelle O’Neil’s story of her own coming-of-age in the midst of a severely dysfunctional upbringing will have readers alternately laughing and crying. Raised in the 70s and 80s by a severely co-dependent mother and an alcoholic father, Michelle is the second daughter of five siblings struggling for survival inside a home where no child should bear witness.
O’Neil writes through the eyes of a young girl named Janie who continually tries to make sense of her chaotic and inconsistent lifestyle. She manages to capture so well the thoughts and feelings of a girl between the ages of eight and twenty-two years of age. Janie is smart and possesses a spark that often sees her through some of her most difficult times. She is an extremely likable character, all the more so as she shares her countless vulnerabilities in the face of utter turmoil. In spite of her situation and well against the odds, Janie finds her own way and discovers not only who she is but also how worthy she is. As she grows into a young woman she realizes perhaps for the first time where her many strengths and talents lie and forges a path for herself, this time on her terms.
Listening to O’Neil’s story I felt a mixture of sadness, sympathy, nostalgia, and, finally, triumph. Since she grew up during the same time I did, I delighted over her references to favorite TV shows like Laverne and Shirley (also a favorite of mine) and her mention of sitting in the “way back” in her grandparents Suburban. I didn’t realize that others outside my own family used that term as well.
I can completely understand the rationale for O’Neil putting into words her story and imagine her many reasons for doing so. I commend her bravery and courage and continually cheered her on throughout the book. Her effective use of humor without ever closing herself off from her feelings belies a kind heart. Though at times her story is heartbreaking to read, the reader will feel Janie’s triumph over her past as she states her desire for a loving family of her own. I found myself wishing the same for her.
While reading Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar (October 2011), I was struck with the sense of knowing girls just like Janie growing up without ever realizing it at the time. O’Neil mentions often the lengths she would go to not have anyone find out what her family was about. The reaction on my part was the result of something stirred up while reading this story and a credit to O’Neil’s talent as a writer. Initially feeling as though her father was getting way more attention than he deserved, I quickly came to realize that this book was not about him nor about any one of the people who should have loved and protected her so much better than their weaknesses and dysfunctions allowed. It is a story about forgiveness.
I recommend this book to anyone who has lived through a similar experience, to those who have had a hand in turning a nightmare into a reality for their loved ones, and to any of us needing a reminder of the strength of an indomitable spirit. Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar will deliver.
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