Dora or the Shifts of the Heart-cover

Published by Chatto and Windus 1990, by Arrow Books 1991, serialised on Radio 4. Dora, the central character of this novel would refuse the epithet 'heroine' - Dora believes her aim in life is to be ordinary. But then, Dora has lived under many a delusion. Fighting free of them is part of her sentimental education. Dora is the story of every woman who tries to be grown up, the itinerary of one modern woman who makes a career out of living. Looking back over her childhood in Ireland, her wild days in London, her comfortable marriage, the apocalyptic meeting with her lover, Dora finally discovers a thing or two: about herself, about passion, about love and duty, about having her cake and eating it, and most of all about the endless shifts of the heart.

The Irish Times ... Dora is provocative, infuriating and irresistible. This is her rich and resonant story, wittily chronicled with seductive energy."


The Sunday Times ... Dora is a wonderful creation - fallible, infuriating, engaging and funny. A flower should be named after her, preferably something voluptuous and untidy, like a peony, which refuses to conform to orderly notions. She has ricocheted through life, from one experience to the next, relying on instinct, believing that nothing ever happens to her by accident - a theory that makes some of her friends regard her as positively unhinged. Sitting on a hot and nameless holiday island, she looks back over her life: her Dublin childhood, her passionate and impecunious youth, the marriage which, like a fortress, both protects and restricts her, her love for her children and her current obsession with her love. Devlin's examination, through her heroine's eyes, of the complicated patterns of personal relationships and of the intermingling of drama, tedium and delight that make up much of daily living is done with insight, humour and style.

Corinne Hall - Time Out Appropriately subtitled "The Shifts of the Heart', this observant and at times hilarious novel charts the sentimental education of Dora, Irish woman, English wife, person-in-exile from self and homeland, through the well-trodden territory of the mid-life crisis... Dora stumbles blindly on to the decision which must be made, finding no short cuts. The path is illuminated by the author's impressive talent for acute insight, le mot juste and an infectious enthusiasm for the infuriating but irresistible Dora. A compassionate, heart-warming novel, with strong autobiographical undertones.

Tim Manderson Publishing News... Dora is an unusual housewife - she believes she wants to live an ordinary life and have an ordinary marriage, but something inside her makes her strive for her own intellectual freedom, which causes problems as she confides to her friend, Stella, "the emotional itinerary of her life... All this makes for an emotional novel, which is lovingly told and almost too rich a fare to digest in one go. Polly Devlin is an acute observer of life as one might expect from a well-known writer, journalist and broadcaster... Always entertaining, even if at times it wanders somewhat, this is a remarkable tour de force.

Peter Vansittart The Daily Telegraph Threatening to prove a very bland novel from smart summer stock, Dora depicts "a voracious lady with an amenable husband", Irish and accident prone, though accidents may disguise the fated, and deepest core of being... She has startling moments of insight and generosity, recognising the moral cost of her own cult of expediency. She also realises the queer powers of memory; mythology, she reflects, is often stronger than the event.

Some, like myself, will enjoy Dora as a vulnerable adventurer in territories increasingly complex, engagingly articulate with a taste for elaborate metaphor. Others may dismiss her adventures as the common-places of romantic fiction, embellished with luminous elegiac accounts of impoverished Ireland and opulent Suffolk. Throughout, Dora is shrewdly observed by her creator. "The fact that Dora regarded marriage as a sacrament did not deter her from roundly abusing it. In any case, she had forgotten what the definition of a sacrament was."

TOM ADAIR THE INDEPENDENT Readers acquainted with Polly Devlin's previous work - her book of stories, The Far Side of the Lough, or her plangent, Hardy-like autobiography, All of Us There - will detect in Dora, her first novel, the familiar whiff of claustrophobia, the dart of pain at forsaken innocence. Oddly, it summoned for me those country music byways grooved by toil and dredged by longing, a place where happiness is under siege and where the heart's eclipse is never far away.

But in Dora the heart is also in spasm. There's a dogged relentlessness, a cannibalistic ego perversely at work. ... She is tenacious, quixotic, beguiling and beguiled...This is a novel whose major theme is the seeking of self, and in its pursuit Polly Devlin is over-indulgent (the book is too long). Endlessly, Dora metaphorically scrapes her breastbone like a cellist trying to saw music out of disharmony. Yet it is in this interior turmoil that the novel is most impressive - passionate, brimming and exact in domestic detail and brittle emotion...

The Irish segments are elegant sketches, with all traces of pastoral nostalgia movingly filtered out; they portray the paradox of Dora's rootedness, showing it to be also the source of her bid for exile. ... the strength of this novel is surely its heroine's gift for surprise. She is multifariously alive, emerging flawed but fully fledged and rather impressively from her ordeal, an abundant equivalent of the novel which bears her name.

Patricia Craig TLS... Polly Delvin’s credentials are good and when she turns to fiction we might expect the result to be impressive or at least diverting. Unfortunately Dora reads like an exercise in self- absorption. ...the book, it’s true has moments of insight and clear headed recreations of bits of the past occur from time to time. But it no plot, no drive, no effective creation of creation of character, no sharpness...

Jennifer Selwaythe Observer . In the first few pages of Polly Devlin's Dora the heroine struggles to account for her casting aside of a 'country-cute' Irish name like Nora in favour of the literary, English and Edwardian tones of 'Dora', By now it is the 1970s and Dora (in her mid-thirties) is holidaying exotically and alone in a hot climate where the bellhop's attentions are becoming suspect. Her thoughts turn from husband to lover with the feverish repetitiveness of a sleepless head on a hot pillow. Briefly, I feared that Nora/Dora was doomed to abandon her well-heeled life of sated passions on this side of the water and reclaim her Irish heritage.

But one need not fret over a writer as tart and funny as Polly Devlin who maintains the high jinks even as she leads towards a resolution that is unexpectedly moral and satisfying....A clue lies in the novel's alternative title, 'The Shifts of the Heart'. Reconsider, for a moment, that uncomfortable adage about it being a woman's prerogative to change her mind. This novel is a celebration of that unsung virtue - the ability to forget the unforgettable, forgive the unforgiveable, and invisibly mend the broken heart. ...

Plymouth Evening Herald ... the story of one woman's -indeed of every woman's - sentimental education. Funny, haunting, witty and illuminating.

Gillian Fairchild. Good Housekeeping.Polly Devlin, well-known Irish journalist, has written short stories and nonfiction, but Dora is her first novel - and I welcome it with open arms. Warm, moving and at times very funny, it follows the heart-searchings of its heroine Dora, who is torn between going for la grande passion or staying put with good old conjugal rights and wrongs... Polly Devlin manages to write both tongue in cheek and wisely, and has much to say about family ties, Irishness, and the needs of ordinary women everywhere. Dora is beautifully written and I loved every single page of it.

Miranda Seymour. The Telegraph The cover tells it all. A pretty and voluptuous woman is sitting in a merchant's house. She is surrounded by attractive infants, a ravishing room, a view to break your heart, wine and music. And there she sits, picking at some oysters and looking fit for a funeral.....Stories about spoilt wives usually infuriate me. Dora didn't. Polly Devlin has the good sense to keep her distance from her heroine; she succeeds in the difficult task of making Dora sympathetic while inviting us to mock the anguish she puts herself and her family through for the sake of an absurd passion. ....The more entertaining part of the novel slides backwards to show what has turned Dora into such a muddle-headed and indecisive creature. ...when the story shifts to Ireland the characters and events take on a brighter sheen. It is in Ireland that Devlin finds a lovely turn of phrase for Dora in a rare moment of self-knowledge as she listens to two country women talking. "And the more she listened, the more she discerned the quality of innocence and knew that to recognise it she must have lost it." As a narrative, Dora isn't a thrill a minute; its merit is in the author's quick and lively mind. The artist's role as a fixer is summarised as "a cross between an international butler, a chaplain and a procurer". Even an episode in a London traffic-jam is enlivened by her sense of the absurd. It is this high-spirited and unquenchable sense of the ludicrous that makes Dora a pleasure to read.

Gemma Hussey - Irish Independent Dora could be described as a selfish, introspective spoiled woman... or she could be considered woman as victim, trying to resolve the conflicts which torture her, arising from her humble Irish Catholic background forced into an English upper-class strait-jacket.....Written with deep feeling and great swooping imagination, Polly Devlin brings the lovers and the loved to life, paints a vivid likeness of two countries and two ways of life, and leaves us in the end with a feeling f compassion for Dora who is faced with, and makes the unhappy decision.

Behind the odyssey of Dora's soul, we detect the sensitive and autobiographical voice of the Irishwoman transplanted to London and Somerset, acutely observing the nuances of attitude between her native and adopted peoples. This is a graceful, accomplished and serious novel.

Patricia Donlon - Irish Times ....For those who want it all, a cautionary tale without caution! I've always admired Polly Devlin since I read "The Far Side of the Lough." Now she's written her first full-length novel, Dora which is very interesting. There's a wonderful fudge of reality and fiction inside a fiction.

Anne Thibault in Beyond Race  on literature which has been overlooked in America. While Polly Devlin, author of the memoir All of Us There, certainly knows her way around the debate table – she is arguably best known in Britain for her appearances as a BBC broadcaster --  she spins a gossamer-fine argument with her fictional take on the motherhood issue in the seminal but underappreciated 1990 novel, Dora, or Shifts of the Heart.  Instead of hammering us over the head to make us weep for the chokehold plight of the housewife, Devlin slips a slow burning cherry bomb on the doorstep of the discussion.  She beguiles us with a maddening heroine who is at times selfish, self-loathing and self-possessed: Dora is both sui generis and utterly, heartbreakingly recognizable.  ... While Dora was critically praised in England upon its debut, it was fully ignored in the United States.  Are we unable to face the power of generally ignored but potent truths?   Or does Devlin’s dexterity with wit make this significant work seem lighter than it is?  It would be dangerous to overlook it – Devlin’s exploration of mothering and womanhood in Dora echoes George Eliot’s exploration of the burdens of social and private life in Middlemarch, with the same quiet and biting humor:  “The fact that Dora viewed marriage as a sacrament did not deter her from roundly abusing it.”  Dora should be placed in the feminist canon alongside Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and studied far ahead of the plethora of Mommy-track books dotting our literary landscape.  If any of us approach marriage and motherhood with the honesty, resiliency, and robust humor of Dora, we need only embrace our “shifts of the heart”:  our feminine mystique, and its accompanying but very human mistakes.