The Problem with Oliver by Maggie O’Farrell

Category: Adolescence, Pizza, Problem
Last Updated: 25 May 2023
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Most teenagers have experienced that odd moment when their parents know what they are doing, even though they haven’t told them; and they certainly don’t like being compared to their parents. Young people consider themselves as individuals who have nothing in common with their parents – but in fact they might have more in common with their elders than they think. The latter might be the case for the main character in Maggie O’Farrell’s short story “The Problem with Oliver”, Fionnuala, who is a perfect, and almost stereotypical, example of a teenager of the kind mentioned in the sentences above.

This short story covers some of the greatest problems and themes, we are all likely to encounter in our own life somehow. It is about the relationship between mother and daughter and about social heritage, how we all deal with growing up, falling in love - which is most likely to be kept secret by young people. What to do, when the one you’re in love with comes from a culture that is despised by your closest family. When the mother is experiencing her first out-of-body experience and tells Fionnuala about it, Fionnuala is rather sceptical and is wondering if her mother has been smoking.

She makes it clear to herself, that her mother has officially gone mad, and she is frustrated and tries to erase the possible similarities between Fionnuala and her mother. They don’t even look alike – not anymore. Not since Fionnuala has started straightening her hair. In which, you could say that Fionnuala will most likely not want to look like her “mad” mother. But the out of body experience made Grainne wonder if her daughter was going to make the same mistake by bringing Oliver along to the beach hut. She is laughing, probably trying to laugh it off and make Fionnuala understand it.

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She then says: “Then I realised it was you, and I was me, in here, in the house. ” (l. 71) In which could mean that Grainne is willing to let her daughter manage it in her own way. Fionnuala may not repeat the mistake, because she could differ so much from Grainne. Fionnuala has an English boyfriend, Oliver. The mother haven’t heard about their relationship from Fionnuala, and Fionnuala is afraid of letting her know, because of her disliking of English men as equal to weak tea and amoebic dysentery (l. 49). The mother is exceedingly fond of Irish folklore and treasures the ancient traditions.

And her fondness is clearly expressed in the name she has given her daughter; the name Fionnuala was, according to Fionnuala herself, an ancient Irish princess who turned into a swan. But it is obvious that Fionnuala is ashamed of her mother’s eccentric behaviour; when she first met Oliver, she introduced herself as “Finn”, unable to add the two last syllables in her name out of sheer embarrassment. The episode, where Fionnuala’s mother Grainne hides the key to the beach hut from her daughter, could very well be the result of a bad experience from Grainne’s younger years.

We know from the text that Grainne moved to England to escape the fury of her family, and since Grainne is able to hide away the key to the beach hut, it could be a sign of her trying to avoid repeating the episode. This looks very much alike the episode, where Grainne sits on a bench and she spots a cat that is about to make it a run for the crumb-pecking finch. (ll. 25-33) Grainne is preventing the cat from getting to the bird by throwing a cloth towards a window.

In the same way, she is attempting to scare Fionnuala or teach her a lesson, and maybe save her from something that could go wrong, like it did for Grainne, when she was younger. So Grainne knows, that there is something bothering Fionnuala, maybe that she haven’t done it yet, and almost the rest of the school has. In the text, Grainne warns Fionnuala about not giving in for peer pressure, and that would save a lot of trouble later. Right when Fionnuala had cancelled the date with Oliver and gone terribly mad at her mother, she founds the key on her bed, and her mother is gone.

Grainne would maybe rather run away herself than run the risks of getting furious with Fionnuala’s boyfriend, so Fionnuala did not have to run anywhere. By growing up, your sense of realism is developing, the older you get. So as the dark, twisted branches of the hawthorn tree tap-tap against the side of the house, as if wanting to come in, could be referred to as the reality, wanting to come inside the house – her mind. Grainne knows what is going on, and therefore, things may get easier for Fionnuala in the future. She could maybe be torn between her mothers strong Irish standards and her boyfriends English ways.

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The Problem with Oliver by Maggie O’Farrell. (2016, Dec 12). Retrieved from

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