Married; children: four. Education: University of Oregon, graduated 1966.
Home—Washington, DC. E-mail—[email protected]
South Bend Tribune, South Bend, IN, staff member, 1966-70; Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago, IL, 1970-76, began as a reporter, became a columnist and editorial writer; Knight-Ridder, Washington, DC, political correspondent and columnist, 1976-87; press secretary for Governor Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign, 1987.
The Candidate's Wife: A Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.
The Ladies' Lunch: A Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
Good Intentions: A Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
The Glory Cloak: A Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
Harriet and Isabella, Touchstone (New York, NY), 2008.
The Woman Alone, Quadrangle (New York, NY), 1973.
Staying Together: Marriages That Work, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
(With Ellen Goodman) I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Patricia O'Brien is a journalist who worked for the South Bend Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times before becoming a political correspondent for the Knight-Ridder newspapers in Washington, DC, where she covered the Reagan White House, Congress, and the 1984 national political campaigns of Gary Hart and Geraldine Ferraro. O'Brien was also the press secretary for Governor Michael Dukakis when he ran for president in 1987.
O'Brien is the author of a number of books, and her nonfiction includes I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives, written with columnist Ellen Goodman. O'Brien and Goodman became friends when both were Nieman fellows at Harvard University in 1973. Both were newly divorced and single mothers. In a Good Housekeeping article about female friendships, they shared their story. O'Brien said: "We would meet at the Pewter Pot restaurant in Harvard Square, order one muffin each, and sit there until noon. We offered each other advice, came close to tears, laughed like crazy at some funny or forbidden memories. Soon we were viscerally on each other's side." The two women stayed in touch by phone while O'Brien was in Chicago and Goodman in Boston. After three years, O'Brien moved to Washington, DC, and they were occasionally able to spend time together. O'Brien and Goodman, like most friends, have enjoyed many lighter moments, but there have been trials in the lives of both during which one friend supported the other. These times included the death of Goodman's stepson and the death of O'Brien's mother.
For their book, they interviewed women who are business partners, who work together in politics, and others who have supported each other in the worst of times. Sociologists and psychologists were asked to offer their explanations of the differences between male and female friendship. They also write of famous friendships, including those of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King.
A Publishers Weekly contributor described I Know Just What You Mean as "warm, honest and engaging" and "a skillful, unsentimental tribute to the strength of the authors' relationship." Orlando Sentinel reviewer Doris Bloodworth concluded: "It's the kind of heartwarming story that will make readers want to call up an old high school or college friend. It's the kind of story that will have many readers thinking, ‘I know just what you mean.’"
O'Brien's fiction includes The Glory Cloak: A Novel, a fictional account that takes place during the years from 1850 to 1888. The narrator is Susan Gray, the fictitious distant cousin of Louisa May Alcott, who comes to their household when she is orphaned as a teen. Susan is ten years younger than Louisa, but they become close, and together they travel to a Washington hospital to help with the war effort. There they meet Clara Barton and John Sulie, supposedly a blacksmith, but one with genteel manners, and with whom Louisa falls in love. The fact that Susan is also attracted to John becomes a burden to the friendship of the two women. Booklist contributor Michele Leber described The Glory Cloak as "a briskly paced, engaging work of historical fiction."
Harriet and Isabella is a historical novel in which O'Brien writes of the events that resulted in a rift between Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and her sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, an early suffragist. Susan Campbell of the Hartford Courant reviewed the book, commenting: "Imagine, for a moment, a family that so enthralls the country that its members' every move is chronicled by the media. Think reformist Kennedys, stalwart Bushes and add authors of unbelievable renown to the mix, and then—maybe—you would have the Beechers." Bookreporter.com reviewer Terry Miller Shannon wrote: "The atmosphere is vividly drawn and the characters vibrant in this compelling tale of a celebrated family, laced with fascinating historical details and intriguing gossip."
The story opens in 1887, during the final hours of their dying brother, Henry Ward Beecher, married to Eunice, but who in 1875 had been put on trial for his alleged adultery involving Elizabeth Tilton. He was the most famous minister of the time, and although the court could not reach a decision, his reputation as a teacher was seriously damaged. Throughout, Harriet supported and defended him while Isabella, who believed him to be guilty, urged him to publicly confess his sins. As he faces death, his family gathers around him, except for Isabella, who is now unwelcome in the house. She rents a room across the street in which she stands watch.
Henry's past and Harriet's past are considered, as well as Isabella's fight for women's rights, which had also pitted the two sisters against each other. Another sister, Catherine Beecher, wrote popular books about domesticity and was an advocate for the education of women. Harriet refused to write for the paper published by Isabella's organization, because she found it to be too radical. It was "free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull" who named Henry as a womanizer who represented the double standard, leaving Isabella uncertain of her allegiance to her family, and she was ultimately considered a traitor by them.
In reviewing Harriet and Isabella for the Washington Post Book World, Carolyn See concluded: "This novel is about our country's ideas and ideals, how we strive, incessantly, to be better than anyone else in the world, and how, sometimes spectacularly, we fail." Wrote Tim Davis for BookLoons online: "Moving, illuminating, provocative, entertaining, and (in some surprising ways) uniquely relevant to all of us in the 21st century, this is top-notch historical fiction."
O'Brien was interviewed for BookBrowse online and asked about the challenges of writing historical fiction. O'Brien responded: "I love writing historical fiction, in part because it lifts me out of my world and demands immersion in another period of history. It takes me out of myself. The challenge of bringing the people of a particular time alive means researching with an eye to balancing fact and imagination, always remembering that—when a choice must be made—the story comes first and the historical detail second."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 15, 2000, Vanessa Bush, review of I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives, p. 1291; April 1, 2004, Michele Leber, review of The Glory Cloak: A Novel, p. 1348; November 15, 2007, Margaret Flanagan, review of Harriet and Isabella, p. 19.
Boston Globe, January 13, 2008, Diane White, review of Harriet and Isabella.
Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2008, Yvonne Zipp, review of Harriet and Isabella, p. 12.
Good Housekeeping, May, 2000, "Girlfriends Are Forever," interview, p. 110.
Hartford Courant, February 9, 2008, Susan Campbell, review of Harriet and Isabella.
Library Journal, May 1, 2000, Cynthia Harrison, review of I Know Just What You Mean, p. 138; April 15, 2004, Jean Langlais, review of The Glory Cloak, p. 126; October 1, 2007, Kathy Piehl, review of Harriet and Isabella, p. 64.
New York Times Book Review, September 24, 2000, Kay Redfield Jamison, review of I Know Just What You Mean, p. 20.
Orlando Sentinel, June 12, 2000, Doris Bloodsworth, review of I Know Just What You Mean.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2000, review of I Know Just What You Mean, p. 68; August 27, 2007, review of Harriet and Isabella, p. 58.
Shape, February, 2002, Mary Ellen Strote, review of I Know Just What You Mean, p. 121.
Washington Post Book World, January 4, 2008, Carolyn See, review of Harriet and Isabella, p. 2.
Biennial Conference for Women 2008 Web site,http://www.theconferenceforwomen.com/ (April 15, 2008), author profile.
BookBrowse,http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (April 15, 2008), author interview.
BookLoons,http://www.bookloons.com/ (April 15, 2008), Tim Davis, review of Harriet and Isabella.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (April 15, 2008), Terry Miller Shannon, review of Harriet and Isabella.
Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (April 15, 2008), review of Harriet and Isabella.
Patricia O'Brien Home Page,http://www.patriciaobrienauthor.com (April 15, 2008).