Once, Twice, Three times an Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen

Published by Gill Books

Two highly anticipated books were published in Ireland early in September. One was The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, the other was Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling, the third in the Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling series. Already having Atwood beat in the number of sequels in a beloved series, Aisling co-authors Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght have also narrowly beaten the Canadian writer to the top spot in the Irish bestseller list (at the time of writing) proving that while we have an appetite for dystopian sagas and the fate of plucky heroines, it’s Aisling Irish readers hold closest to their hearts.

Aisling has become a bona fide national treasure, with her no-nonsense attitude to life boosted by a fierce loyalty to her bevy of friends and family recognisable in so many of Ireland’s millennials. She is about to turn thirty and despite having most things ticked off her ‘things to do before I’m thirty list’, ambitious Ais is still a little blue that she has yet to reach her ultimate goal of settling down with a nice man and starting a family.

Love interest James Mathews from book two is still on the picture, but early days and conflicting schedules mean Aisling isn’t realistically prepared to hear any wedding bells in their vicinity just yet. And anyway she is in the next best position as her best friend Majella’s chief (and only) bridesmaid, only thrilled to take on any and all responsibilities associated with the role.

Adding to Aisling’s hectic schedule is the day to day running of her café Bally-Go-Brunch, helping her mother with her new eco-farm and glamping business, actively avoiding ex-boyfriend John, getting through an awkward meet-the-parents New Year bash at James’ family home in England and taking on the biggest and most top-secret catering commission of her short business life. By the middle of the book anyone but Aisling would have been burned out from responsibility.

And that’s where the book’s overarching subject lies. The confessional-style narrative is used to the best effect yet in book three, with Aisling’s increasing isolation and struggle for control leading to being on the cusp of burning out from spreading herself too thin and not feeling able to ask for help. There’s an agonizing intimacy between her and the reader, which makes us see her struggles in becoming overwhelmed before she realises them herself.

One of the recurring storylines is Aisling’s sole organisation of Majella’s hen party, an epic task involving the organisation of a trip to the groom’s native Tenerife to rendezvous with his extended female family, an ever expanding guest list, hens’ increasingly dramatic demands, and many more horrors. The depiction of the WhatsApp group is so scarily accurate (some would say exaggerated for comic affect, but anyone who’s organised a hen will know it for the minefield that it is), that it almost gave me palpitations.

Another running thread is her brother Paul’s grief after a difficult break-up while in Australia. Compounded with the recent death of their father and loneliness out in Oz he returns home in desperation. His mood continues to ebb but everyone is so wrapped up in their own lives and problems that they don’t see his sadness. It’s very well captured; Aisling knows he’s struggling but assumes he’ll snap out of it, their mother is pre-occupied with her business but is sure that hot dinners and sleep-ins will do the trick. It’s a subtle reminder to check in with friends and families, whether vulnerable or seemingly absolutely fine; it’s very difficult to know what’s going on behind closed doors. It was World Mental Health day on Thursday, 10th October – you can still take it as an opportunity to reach out to someone you haven’t seen in a while, or even someone closer to home.

By book three is Aisling still the average girl we were first introduced to? Not so much, but there’s only so far you can go with the original gags, funny and astute as they are. Aisling has been given room to grow and advance, just as the Aisling who was first recognised by McLysaght and Breen will have in the intervening years. There’s still humour aplenty, much of it lying in the idiosyncrasies of Irish characters and the foibles of Irish life in general, but a sensitive touch is also applied to modern concerns. By the end of the book Aisling has learned a lot about herself and her capabilities, and is looking forward to facing her next chapter, as of course are her avid fans.

First published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday, October 9th.

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