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Table of Contents
About The Book
Kate McDaid thought that going to the reading of her great-great-aunt’s will would be just another non-event in her ordinary life. A junior copywriter at an advertising agency in Dublin, she was used to spending her days wrangling clients, over-indulging in chocolatey products, and whiling away nights at the pub with her best friends, using her trusty bicycle to get around town. Instead, Kate finds out that the will and her aunt (also known as the Red Witch of Knocknamee) dictates that Kate must publish a series of strange poems called “The Seven Steps” under her own name in order to inherit the rest of her aunt’s estate.
And those poems? They’re a mysterious treatise on the importance and existence of fairies…
Kate decides to publish the Steps on a friend’s website, thinking that the low traffic on the site would let her posts go unnoticed. She never could have imagined that in a matter of days, she would find herself a local celebrity with her own group of devotees and the target of a mysterious and glamorous newspaper reporter. Even Dublin’s rock-and-roll sweetheart—and Kate’s onetime fling—writes a song inspired by the Steps.
While the Steps strike a chord across Ireland and the world, Kate takes the message to heart. But as the tone of each Step moves from free-spirited to sinister, Kate must decide if she will go through with publishing all seven Steps—or protect humankind from an ancient evil.
Infused with just enough magic and everyday familiarity that anyone can relate to, this fantastic debut is a page-turner with the perfect mix of humor and mystery.
A year ago no one had heard of me. That was before all this. Before a columnist in The Irish Times wrote that I was a twenty-first-century prophet. Before I was denounced from the pulpit by the Catholic Church. Before a small group in Dublin misinterpreted me and destroyed a landmark clock in my name. Before I was chased by paparazzi. Before I became the number one Irish search word on Google. Before Mam wanted a boob job. Before people wondered, I mean really wondered, “what if.” Before anyone had ever really considered the existence of an invisible world.
I can hardly remember back that far. I try to, but my old life is getting hazy.
It all started on a Monday. My birthday.
The office had gone through the birthday rigmarole and surprised me with a Victoria sandwich covered in candle wax. The sugar addicts and the easily distracted design department halfheartedly mouthed the words to “Happy Birthday.” One budding soprano stretched his neck and crackled through the high notes. I recognized him from accounts but couldn’t remember his name.
All eyes shifted from me to the cake.
I backed away and they dived in.
I’m not a fan of birthdays. It took Claire, the office manager, two years to find out my birthday date. And then it was accidental. The amorous Italian I was dating that summer sent me flowers. Carnations. He had busy hands, more suckers than hands. We’d be in a bookshop, and all of a sudden they’d be up my shirt and in my bra. He’d eat my neck as a first course in restaurants and snake his legs around mine so it was impossible to stand up. It was irritating. Anyway, Claire twigged when she saw the petrol-station flowers, and I’ve had three uncomfortable ten-minute work birthday parties since then and no more Latin lovers.
When the cake had been demolished, I slunk back to my desk and sank into my chair, happy to lie low in case they wanted a speech. This was unlikely; most of them would have learned my name for the first time when they signed the birthday card. I work with four people, am on nodding acquaintance with another ten, and have no idea who the other three hundred are.
“Happy birthday, Annie.” Matthew winked at me as he wheeled over my guests-only chair. He was trying to be funny: my name is Kate, but I was a dead ringer for Little Orphan Annie as a child, with a shock of red hair, large blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles that twenty years later still haven’t joined up. Birthdays were ruined for me by Annie, or rather by Mam’s insistence that I mark my special day by singing “Tomorroooooow” to neighbors, drunken relatives, and postmen—anyone with ears, really.
“Funny. You are funny.”
Matthew started whistling “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” his eyes tearing up with amusement.
I hadn’t been sure about working with Matthew at first. I think it was his name. Matthew, not Matt, Mattie, M, but the full-barreled shotgun Mat-thew. It’s unusual not to shorten your name. It feels very grand and a bit unfriendly. It made him sound like an earl or a liquor. He’s none of those things, but he is a little bit grand, I suppose, by Dublin standards. He carries a briefcase and always has a black umbrella, like a banker. He uses a money clip, a gold shiny one. He asked if I thought he was “an awful eejit for having one.” I shook my head and declared, “No, maybe we should all have money clips.” And that seemed to break the ice.
I started working at Frank & Peterson, an advertising agency, five and a half years ago as a junior copywriter. Five and a half years later, I’m still a junior copywriter. I don’t know how to shout. When I get turned down for a pay raise, I say thank you. I once plucked up the courage to ask for a promotion, which I didn’t get, but I did get put on the summer party fund-raising committee and somehow offered to babysit my boss Colin’s kids. I panic in the face of authority, and even though Colin speaks like a Disney character and twiddles his mustache in a friendly fashion, I’m still intimidated by him.
That was all going to change this year, though. My birthday is my New Year’s Eve. I make resolutions. This year I was going to get a promotion, a proper promotion with a pay raise and a new job title. For four days now, I had told the universe I was grateful. I embraced the power of now while still managing to feel the fear and do it anyway. I had repeated affirmations in my head like “I am a rich, successful copywriter who is moments away from a promotion.”
The good news was, in spite of my self-help mantras, or because of them—I hadn’t made up my mind—the promotion was looking like a possibility. Through a series of errors, Matthew and I had landed one of the biggest accounts in the agency, the Starshoot Chocolate account. So far, the client didn’t like us or any of our ideas, but I was optimistic. I was always optimistic.
Frank & Peterson is a giant multinational advertising agency, one of the shiny corporate ones where decisions are made from a head office in outer space, based on gravity pull and lotto numbers. They colonized a small indigenous agency about fifteen years ago, introducing new jobs and a corporate language and ethos to which most employees were happy to be shackled. Corporate life has a lot of perks—good Christmas parties and an excellent dental plan. My teeth have never looked better.
The offices are on the top floor of a building in the financial district of Dublin. If this were any other city, F & P would be at a dizzying height, inducing wobbly knees and shortness of breath, but not in Dublin, where the hand of God rests firmly on the skyline to stop it from getting too proud. Modesty is a much-respected Dublin trait, in the people and in the city.
The office overlooks the River Liffey and its ancient bridges, gray and heaving under the heavy commuter plod. The IV drip to Dublin is the river. It splits the city in two and serves as our very own Berlin Wall. Northsiders and southsiders seldom see the need to cross over and mix with each other, and only bad jokes about passports and visa stamps unite the two sides. It used to be that the north side was poor and the south side was rich, but for the past few years the economy had been booming, so everyone was rich and the jokes weren’t funny anymore. Life was plentiful in Ireland. We were riding the crest of a wave that wasn’t showing any sign of crashing. Kids born in the 1990s couldn’t remember life before BMWs, stone massages, and organic-coffee shops. The past few months there’d been rumors that the good times were coming to an end, but no one seemed to be paying any heed to the naysayers.
The north side of Dublin feels gritty and disheveled. A lot of the buildings are tired and need a reality TV makeover. The main shopping street, Henry Street, moves at a frantic pace: elbows are out, necks jut forward, and there’s a sense of urgency that that coat will be 20 percent off for only the next two minutes. In contrast, the south side is lazy. Grafton Street shoppers move slowly down the burnt-orange brickwork, like cows out to pasture. Shopfronts are charming and freshly painted, maintaining the feel of an older, grander Dublin. It helps that Grafton Street is anchored by the beauty and dignity of Trinity College, which is hundreds of years old, and capped on the far end by Stephens Green, home since the seventeenth century to the friendliest ducks in Ireland.
I’m a southsider. I went to a south-side school and a south-side university, my ex-boyfriends have all been southsiders and most of my friends are, too. Except for Matthew. He’s a northsider through and through. We’re very proud that we’ve managed to crash through the barricades to become friends.
Matthew ripped open his 2,453rd Starshoot, the reason he’d put on seven pounds in the past month. He pulled on his nose. He has a big nose and big eyebrows, features that don’t work in isolation but together are quite attractive, and short dark hair and lovely olive skin that you wouldn’t expect to find on an Irishman (he reckons a Spanish sailor wandered into his gene pool many generations back).
“The caramel in these is too chewy. My fillings shake when I’m near one. Will we go with that? ‘Rip the fillings out of your head with Starshoot.’”
He drew a line on a blank page and dramatically placed a full stop after it. “Starshoot, in association with the dentists of Ireland.”
I long-blinked in agreement. “How are we going to crack this campaign?” I started chewing the skin around my nails, always a sign that I’m nervous.
A slow mournful creak distracted us. In our agency the postman always howls twice. Dudley from dispatch was approaching with his cart. He could deliver the mail and cop a perve at the same time—it was award-winning stuff.
With a heavy sigh, and never taking his eyes from my chest, which isn’t particularly flat or buxom and normally doesn’t warrant many glances, Dudley did a three-point turn and parallel parked. “Happy birthday, Kate.” White spittle gathered at the corner of his mouth. He gave a little giggle and wiggled his shoulders. “So, are you two, you know . . . ?” He raised his unibrow.
It’s impossible for some people to understand that Matthew and I are just friends. We’ve never had a sneaky snog or a drunken fumble. There’s never been any sexual tension between us, and neither of us is closeted gay. We really like each other but have just never fancied one another.
“Well, are you and Connie, you know?” Matthew had caught him out. Connie worked in the canteen and was 874 years old.
“That’s disgusting.” Dudley coughed and straightened up. “This came for you. It’s registered. Looks important.” He passed me a large white envelope, reversed his cart, and left, muttering “disgusting” under his breath.
“Oh, registered.” Matthew looked delighted to have a distraction. “A birthday present?”
I did an I-don’t-know face and ripped open the envelope, which, disappointingly, was not car- or house-shaped. Still, I felt giddy and then confused when I pulled a legal-looking letter out of the envelope. I cleared my throat and in a professional, BBC-newsreader manner turned to Matthew.
“‘Dear Miss McDaid. You are invited to attend the reading of the will of Miss Kate McDaid in our offices on Monday, May 5, at nine a.m.’” I looked up over the heavy cream paper. “What? Have I died and nobody told me?”
Matthew looked as baffled as me.
“Is this one of those weird after-death dreams?” I said. “I don’t remember a white light.”
“What else does it say?”
“‘You are cited as a benefactor in her will and are required to attend our offices for a reading of said will. Yours sincerely, Seamus MacMurphy.’ How can I be a benefactor of my own will?”
Matthew reached over and grabbed the letter from my hand.
“It must be a typo or a mail merge gone wrong or something.” I gulped loudly.
“Very wrong if it’s killed you off,” Mathew said. “There must be another Kate McDaid. It’s not that uncommon a name. We could google her.”
“We’d just be googling me.”
“You should ring this guy, Seamus MacMurphy. Find out if it’s a typo.”
“When did you get so wise?”
“Cagney and Lacey reruns.”
I laughed and picked up the phone. This had to be a typo.
“MacMurphy Solicitors. How can I help you?” The woman on the other end of the line sounded startled, as if the phone had woken her from a deep sleep.
“Can I speak to Seamus MacMurphy, please?”
“I’m afraid Mr. MacMurphy isn’t available. Can I take a message?”
“Well, em . . .” How do I say this? I’ve been invited to my own will reading?
“I just got a letter and I’m invited to the reading of a will tomorrow and I don’t know who the person is who died. Is that normal?”
“Your name, please?”
There was some paper rustling on the other end of the line. “Yes, Miss McDaid. You are invited to the reading of the will of Miss Kate McDaid.” She paused. “Oh, same name.”
“Yeah, that’s why I was wondering if there’s an error or a typo?”
“No, no typo.” Her voice lowered. “We’ve been waiting for the reading of this will for quite some time. There’s a real buzz in the office about it.”
“About the will?”
“Yes. We’ve had it in the office for over one hundred and thirty years,” she whispered. “It’s one of those we never thought would come about.” I heard a door banging behind her. She cleared her throat. “See you at nine a.m. tomorrow. Thank you.” And she hung up.
I turned to Matthew, excitedly. “The will is over one hundred and thirty years old. This other Kate McDaid died back in 1880 or something. How did she know to invite me now? And why? Who is she?”
Matthew looked at me, chewing pensively. “I wonder if she had any money.”
“And I wonder if any of it is going to come my way.”
Reading Group Guide
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When Dubliner Kate McDaid turned twenty-six, her goal for the next year was to get a promotion at work. Focused on a pay raise and a new job title, she certainly never expected that her twenty-sixth year would bring her fame and attention beyond anything she could imagine—or want. It begins when a mysterious letter arrives inviting her to attend the reading of the will of Miss Kate McDaid. What seems at first to be an obvious mistake will soon turn Kate’s life completely upside down when she is named the sole beneficiary to the estate of her great-great-great-grand-aunt of the same name. The catch is that the estate will only be revealed after Kate publishes a letter and a series of seven poems that her ancestor has bequeathed to her. Curious—and a little amused—Kate agrees, and decides to publish the poems online. And so begins a frenzy in Ireland and around the world as each of the “Seven Steps” brings followers closer to a world beyond ours, a world with fairies and witches and the promise of eternal youth. As the messages gradually become more sinister with each step, Kate is faced with the decision of whether or not to see them through. Could the fate of humanity be in her hands?
Filled with humor, romance, building suspense—and of course a little bit of magic—Reluctantly Charmed makes us think about the things we believe in and ponder what may exist just beyond our detection. It charms from page one and is a debut to be devoured without any reluctance.
Questions and Topics For Discussion
1. On page 32, Matthew says, “Some of that stuff is kind of nice. Thinking that there’s something else out there, that maybe it isn’t just this.” Do you agree? How do you feel about the idea that it could be “just this”? Do you think it’s possible in today’s modern world to believe in an “other world”?
2. Kate and her parents have very different approaches to dealing with the sudden fame and publicity they receive from the Seven Steps. What do you make of their reactions? Who would you act like in a similar situation? Or would you take a totally different approach?
3. Drake Chandler’s suicide note mentioned fairies. Was it a coincidence—or something more?
4. On page 89, Kate decides to keep following the steps. She acknowledges that she likes to stay on top of trends: “If people are talking about it, I’m going to try it.” Are you also quick to try out the latest fads, or are you more of a wait-and-see type? Do you think you would have been likely to start following the Seven Steps if everyone else around you was talking about it?
5. Kate had an imaginary friend as a child that she later remembers and realizes was one of the fairies. Have you ever had a childhood memory suddenly come back to you? Do you think it’s possible to hold onto childhood beliefs, like fairies, into adulthood? What were the magical things you believed in as a child?
6. “A stranger in a small town will never know the rhythm of the place. A stranger will always cause an eyebrow to raise or a throat to clear. There is a language, a code built into the locals that a visitor cannot translate” (p. 250). Does this notion of a small town ring true with your own experiences? Have you ever been an insider or an outsider in a small town?
7. Do you think it was right for the people of Knocknamee to try to profit off the attention that the Seven Steps brought them? Should they be “making hay while the sun shines” (p. 347), as Annie put it, or do you agree with Father O’Brien that cashing in on the attention is worshipping money as a false god?
8. Compare and contrast the characters of Hugh and Jim. How did your feelings toward each of them evolve throughout the course of the story?
9. Kate handles the truth about her ancestor the Red Hag fairly well. How do you think you would feel if, like Kate, you found out that you were the descendant of someone who was considered evil and murdered by his or her contemporaries?
10. Do you agree with Kate’s decision not to share the real Seventh Step? What would you have done in her position? Should she still have inherited the blue bottle even though she didn’t actually do what the will required of her?
11. What do you make of Kate losing her hair? Discuss the symbolism in her supposed punishment from the fairies.
12. Kate’s journey with the Seven Steps changed her. She felt distanced from the people closest to her because no one could really understand what she had gone through. She acknowledges, “I wasn’t the person I had been” (p. 349). Discuss the ways that Kate changes and evolves throughout the story. Have you ever had an experience where you came out feeling like you were no longer the same person?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Every year on Kate’s birthday, she has dinner with her parents at the same Italian restaurant and they recount the story of her birth: “It’s a redhead!” Do you have any specific birthday traditions in your family? Or funny stories that you tell every year for the occasion?
2. Have you thought of what your fairy name might be? Go around the group and try to come up with a fairy name for each member of your book club.
3. What childhood beliefs have you held onto in adulthood?
4. At the end of the book, Kate says, “I’ll keep loving nature and enjoying every beautiful moment in it. I’ll keep having fun, and singing and dancing and laughing, just like they asked us to” (p. 387). Not everything in the Seven Steps was manipulative. What can you appreciate from them? Pick one or two of the more positive aspects from the fairies’ instructions and try following them.
5. To learn more about fairies and Irish folklore, visit the website ireland.mysteriousworld.com/Mystery/Folklore/FairyTales/, or pick up a copy of W. B. Yeats’ Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland.
A Conversation with Ellie O’Neill
You’ve said this story came to you in a roundabout way from your grandmother. Do you think she truly believed in fairies?
I really don’t know—I’d love to be able to ask her that. She may just have been erring on the side of caution. My granny was a formidable woman who shed her rural upbringing with delight and made a very modern life for herself in Dublin. She always wore a fur coat, had her nails polished, and worked when it wasn’t the thing for a woman to do. But there were traditions from her upbringing that she was never able to shake, and one of them was talking about fairies. Her childhood was colored with stories of the nasty tricks the Little People had performed. I touch on this in Reluctantly Charmed—how sometimes it’s hard to lose childhood beliefs, that often there’s a niggle of doubt about something you heard as a kid. But did she truly believe? I don’t know.
Do you believe in fairies? Or in magic, or the existence of something beyond?
I choose to believe in the possibility of them. I hope there’s magic out there, that karma exists, that there’s some great puppeteer in the sky pulling strings to make wonderful things happen. I have that dream, but I’m also a realist—bills need to be paid, bones get broken, feelings get hurt, life can be really hard . . . but maybe because life can be hard we need to believe in magic even more!
What kind of research was involved in the writing of this novel? Was there anything particularly interesting that you came across while researching?
I read a lot of books (shocker: Writer in Reading Scandal!!!). I was living in Ireland while I was writing, and so I spoke to a lot of people to hear their stories and get their opinions on fairy lore, which was ridiculously good fun. William Butler Yeats was probably my primary source of inspiration from a literary point of view; I fell in love with his idea of fairies. His poems and his imagery of Ireland is really breathtaking.
Folklore is fun—its very nature as an oral tradition leaves everything in a gray area. There’s a lot of wiggle room for truth and fact, and that’s part of the appeal. It’s good old-fashioned sci-fi!
Is Knocknamee a real place? Or based on one? Have you ever been anywhere like it?
It’s fictitious. Sorry! But there are plenty of places like it in the west of Ireland. Little pockets of heaven are there, just waiting for you to stumble across them at the turn of a road.
How do you think you would personally handle fame and media attention, like Kate had to?
I am a bit—OK, a lot—celebrity-obsessed. I read my show-biz blogs and magazines, check out the fashion, discuss the romances. I love the crazy world of selfies and surgery. But could I handle being in it? Probably not. I am happy to remain a voyeur, with no fan clubs and all of my own wrinkles.
If you had the chance to go to Tír na Nóg and live in the land of eternal youth, would you?
Imagine—a world with no wrinkles, no creaks in your back, no aches and pains? Amazing. Just think of the money you’d save on creams alone. The only problem with Tír na Nóg is that once you’re there, you can never leave. And as exciting a prospect as it is to still be raving well into my nineties, I wouldn’t want to be without my family.
Why do you think the Irish make such good storytellers?
Have you ever walked away from an Irish person and thought, Well, they really didn’t have much to say for themselves? You see? It doesn’t happen. The ability to chat is in our DNA, and somewhere along the way we learned that a beginning, a middle, and and end, with maybe a few jokes and some bad language thrown in, might get you a pint in the pub and win you a few friends.
Are there any particular writers or works that inspired your interest in writing a story of magical realism?
I read a broad spectrum of genres. A good story is what appeals to me, whatever the backdrop.
What has been the most exciting part of the publishing process so far?
I remember when the contract came through—I was five months pregnant and literally shaking from head to toe in disbelief and thinking that all this adrenaline couldn’t be good for the baby! It was surreal, after countless rejections, to suddenly have a contract in front of me. I was dumbstruck by it all.
What’s up next for you?
I’m working on another book and running after a toddler, so life is pretty full and busy right now.
- Publisher: Touchstone (March 17, 2015)
- Length: 416 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476757551
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Raves and Reviews
"O’Neill’s writing is sharp, funny, and authentic, and she brings us a believable – and truly likable – protagonist in the most unlikely of circumstances. Reluctantly Charmed is a first effort that will bring O’Neill plenty of fans, while reminding her readers to keep an eye out for magic in surprising places."
– Irish America
"Reluctantly Charmed is a sweet, whimsical, quintessentially Irish novel guaranteed to add a little magic to your day!"
– Liane Moriarty
“[A] chatty and original debut . . . The pages breeze by due to O'Neill's accessible style. . . . The true appeal of the novel is in the author's sure-handed depiction of Ireland's landscape, people, and lore. . . . Whimsical.”
– –Kirkus Reviews
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