When Light is Like Water by Molly McCloskey – Book Review

Title: When Light is Like Water

Author: Molly McCloskey

Genre/Themes: Drama, Contemporary, Marriage, Identity, Family, Mothers and Daughters

Blurb from Goodreads

Alice, a young American on her travels, arrives in the West of Ireland with no plans and no strong attachments – except to her beloved mother, who raised her on her own. She falls in love with an Irishman, marries him, and settles down in a place whose codes she struggles to crack. And then, in the course of a single hot summer, she embarks on an affair that breaks her marriage and sets her life on a new course.

After years working in war zones around the world, and in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death, Alice finds herself back in Ireland and contemplating the forces that led her to put down roots and then tear them up again. What drew her to her husband, and what pulled her away? Was her husband strangely complicit in the affair? Was she always under surveillance by friends and neighbours who knew more than they let on?

When Light is Like Water is at once a gripping story of passion and ambivalence and a profound meditation on the things that matter most: the definition of love, the value of family and the meaning of home.

My Review

What is it we are searching for in this life?

  • Is it love?
  • Companionship?
  • Is it the search for our own uniqueness? That something that makes us truly is?
  • What are the reasons behind our actions?
  • Do we truly ever think about cause and effect?

Alice is an American who moved to Ireland, somehow found herself married to an Irishman and then also somehow had an affair.

Her whole life feels ambivalent. Unplanned. Haphazard.

When Light is Like Water is a very peculiar novel. It’s beautifully written but there is such a strong sense of dispassion from Alice that at times it is hard to fully connect with her even though, conversely, this is a novel laden with emotion.

The story unfurls in a sort of loosely structured manner… It shows Alice looking back on her life and how she got to her present state by focusing on the most major relationships on her life; her husband, her lover and her mother, and by weaving back and forth through the most important time periods in each relationship and how they moulded her life.

I both liked and disliked Alice… Personally i think that’s always a good sign in a novel. I like when a character isn’t a perfect human being but is instead deeply flawed and therefore more realistic.

Despite her own ambivalence about life, Alice’s character stirred emotion in me… Frequently it was annoyance and frustration because I wanted more… But I think that was the point of this novel. This is a book about that place in time where we pause. Where we find breath before we step forward again into the breach. And I wanted the novel to move forward more. I guess I wanted answers… But life isn’t simple like that. It’s not black and white. Sometimes there are no reasons there is just because.

This is a very moving portrayal of a marriage that maybe in an alternate reality could have worked but sadly didn’t. It is also a moving portrayal of the relationship between an ageing mother and daughter. I think that was my favourite part of this book. How the protagonist began to view her mother as this person separate from role of motherhood. There were so many small moments of true beauty describing the complexities of the relationship between the adult daughter and her ageing mother that really stood out for me. 

Overall When Light is Like Water was a beautifully written novel that is best enjoyed slowly when the reader can give time to think about what it is they are reading. Definitely one for those readers who prefer quiet character studies to plot driven novels with exciting crescendos.

A solid read

I really wanted to share these passages as I found them to be both moving and thought provoking, and to me they really encapsulate the feeling of this novel:-

I read once that to commit to love is to commit to love’s diminishment. Which means that commitment is less about optimism than it is about realism – accepting that love is doomed to become less of itself, and proceeding anyway, in the faith that one will be equal to that truth when it arrives.


A child’s world is infinite not because the child is capable of realising any dream, but because the child does not yet know just how many dreams she will need to forsake, how little time and energy and fortitude will actually be available to her in this life time.

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