To say that Nick O’Reilly is a “Type A” personality does not adequately describe him. Nick is, like so many attorneys practicing in large cities with prestigious law firms, driven; he is a workaholic. At the age of 36, he has achieved his dream of becoming a partner in a Wall Street law firm. Nick has a healthy bank account and an apartment with a stunning view of Central Park, but he has sacrificed his personal life in order to attain professional success.
Although the firm is well-known for its profitability, as well as legal prowess, it has suffered public embarrassment for failing to perform pro bono (free of charge) work. When the firm’s managing partner announces that the firm is forming a Pro Bono Committee and that Nick will be handling the firm’s first case, Nick is, to say the least, shocked. Of course, the development will be heralded by a press release and the firm is expecting Nick to become its “poster boy” for the new endeavor.
Nick has no choice but to accept the assignment He soon learns that his client is a victim of domestic named Dawn Nelson, who is fighting to gain custody of her son. Since Nick has no experience litigating family law matters, he will be assisted by Tom Dooley, the Managing Director of New York City Legal Services, a nonprofit organization specializing in domestic issues and children’s rights.
Nick immediately feels empathy for Dawn and is determined to keep both her and her young son safe from her controlling, abusive husband. But as Nick’s feelings for Dawn deepen, he begins to question the choices he has made thus far in this life. He reflects on his priorities and what, if he continues on the same path, his legacy will ultimately be. He takes a more probing, in-depth look at his surroundings — his colleagues, his lifestyle . . . even his apartment, as he questions whether any of the trappings of success that he has accumulated have lasting, meaningful value. He also recalls his own father’s devotion to and pride in his own work, and the manner in which his father’s labor ultimately rewarded him and their family.
Nick’s actions could have disastrous consequences or be the start of a wonderful, fulfilling new chapter in his life. What will he choose?
The Life O’Reilly is a perfect book to curl up with in front of a roaring fire and delicious warm drink during the holiday season. Because The Life O’Reilly is an exploration, through Nick’s journey, of two major themes: 1. Our choices always have consequences, but it is how we react to those consequences and what we learn from the experience that shapes our character; and 2. Every individual has to decide for him/herself what matters most, and then focus his/her energy and efforts on those priorities, because life can be unpredictably finite.
As the story opens, Nick has, by all outward signs, made it. He is living out his dream of being a big-short, New York City lawyer. He is a highly regarded partner in a well-respected Wall Street firm. He owns a fifteenth-floor apartment with a breathtaking view of Central Park South, although he doesn’t spend nearly enough time in it because he is always working ridiculously long hours at the firm. Still, even though he readily admits that he “has no life,” he is living what many people would call “the good life.”
Or is he?
Nick does not yet realize it, perhaps, but he is, in actuality, miserable, but caught up in the lifestyle he has adopted. The first sign of Nick’s vulnerability is his initial conference with Dawn, during which she tells him what her life has been like. Nick is accustomed to initial client meetings conducted “over dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants, with executives from Fortune 500 companies cackling about shareholder litigation over martinis, forty-dollar steaks, and expensive Cuban cigars.” Nick finds himself “drained” and determined to help Dawn and her son after hearing her story. He can’t forget the wish she expressed: “All I want is for us to have normal lives.” Nick gradually comes to realize that Dawn’s case has importance and meaning beyond the mere financial implications of the matters he is used to litigating.
But Nick’s idea of “normal” has been, up to that point, quite different from the “normal” for which Dawn yearns. For twelve years, Nick has been answering to Philip Charles Addison, a man who displays photos in his office of a wife and children with whom he spends little time. Phil is an expertly crafted, terrifyingly accurate character: A man whose only priority has been and is his career, to the exclusion of all else. In fact, Phil never left the office on September 11, 2001. He continued working as though nothing ever happened. Phil expects his staff to routinely work until late at night and on the weekends, performing “bed checks” as he roams the office hallways late into the evenings. He relates war stories to Nick about practically ruining his marriage by abdicating familial responsibilities in favor of work, expecting Nick to emulate his behavior.
Phil has learned well from Wilfred J. T. Schmidt, III, the firm’s Managing Partner and son of the firm’s founder, whose oil painting he passes by each day on the way to his office. In one particularly poignant scene, Phil and Will chastise Nick for not displaying an acceptable level of dedication to his work. Will shares details about his own relationship with his father that pushes Nick’s gnawing sense that his life has to be about more than the practice of law into overdrive.
I took a moment and considered what kind of person I wanted to be. I loved and revered my father deeply, but his company-guy mentality no longer served me well. I was ashamed of myself. And then, when I thought about it, I realized that, deep down, after everything Dad went through, he wouldn’t want me to just sit back and keep quiet. It was time to stand and be counted.
Of course, standing and being counted does not bode well for Nick’s future with the firm. Nor do some of the choices he makes. In some aspects, Nick is an extremely frustrating character. He is reckless in his dealings with Dawn, impetuously placing himself in places and circumstances that he would prudently advise a client to avoid at all costs. But Nick is, in one sense, like a child venturing out into the world alone for the first time without a chaperone or guide. He has spent so many years focused on his career to the exclusion of everything else that people like Dawn consider “normal,” he fails to appreciate the manner in which his behavior might be construed and what it might mean for his career. His tragic flaw is also endearing, however, because as he embarks upon his new life adventure, it is impossible not to hope that he finds a way to break away from Will, Phil, et al. and find happiness, whether it be with Dawn or not.
Happily ever after? That depends on the reader’s definition of the phrase. The story reaches a point at which Cohen could have ended it. I do take small issue with the manner in which Cohen moves the story along. There is a strong argument that the consequences of Nick’s poor choices are not well-founded and, thus, not plausible. However, Cohen had, by that time, written himself into somewhat of a quagmire. Had Nick’s conduct been more egregious, his core characteristics — his integrity and almost child-like naivete — would have been sorely compromised, thus diminishing the reader’s empathy. And the outcome of Nick’s interactions with Dawn had to be draconian enough to move the plot along in order for Cohen to tell what is essentially a second story. So I was willing to suspend my disbelief in order to allow myself to be swept into that portion of Nick’s journey.
If you’re stuck in a situation in which you’re unhappy, you need to get control of your life now, because you never know what life is going to bring.~~ Brian Cohen
As Nick, having made peace with and learned from the consequences of his mistakes, discovers that he is facing new and distinctly different obstacles, the story really reaches its emotional vortex. The irony is overwhelming and will leave the reader thinking about the “what if’s” and “if only’s” long after reading the last page. Cohen chose not to take advantage of an opportunity to explore Nick’s relationship with his mother more deeply, making her a bit too angelic in the process. After all, the woman lost her husband as a direct result of his own fierce dedication to the corporate world. Perhaps Cohen felt it would detract from the main story which, of course, is devoted to Nick’s experiences and reactions. Again, my quibble with his creative direction is minor.
The Life O’Reilly is a powerful debut novel, full of carefully nuanced and authentic characters. Nick’s journey is continuously interesting and his transformation credible. Cohen employs an economic writing style that is taut and crisp, yet vividly descriptive of the settings and characters whose dialogue rings true. The story moves along swiftly, the pace never bogging down. Most importantly, Nick’s journey evokes deep empathy and compassion as he arrives at a crossroads, discovers what he cherishes most, and pursues it, dramatically altering his lifestyle in the process.
Ultimately, The Life O’Reilly succeeds because it inspires you to think about your own priorities and the things that matter most in your own life. The story will resonate with anyone who has ever grappled with work-life balance. Most of all, Nick’s story makes you ponder your many blessings and will leave you feeling thankful for and determined to enjoy them for as long as you can.
Meet Brian Cohen
Brian Cohen was born in Queens and raised on Long Island. He holds a Bachelor of Accountancy from George Washington University’s School of Business and Public Management and earned his law degree at St. John’s University School of Law, where he was a member of the Law Review. His twelve-year legal practice has been focused on complex litigation with an emphasis on corporate, securities, and commercial law. Brian still lives in the New York City are with his wife and two daughters.
Interview with Author Brian Cohen
1. What was your inspiration for the book?
I am a huge fan of crime fiction, so as an attorney setting out to write a first novel, it naturally followed that legal suspense would be my genre of choice. I spent six months researching, plotting, outlining, and creating character sketches, and then another six months cranking out 150 pages of material. During that time, though, a lot was happening in my life & stories of people my age dying prematurely were being told with alarming frequency, the rat race had become all-consuming, and my wife and I were getting ready to welcome our first child into the world. Then one day, I appreciated that everything I’d been experiencing had inspired another story; I realized that, though writing a crime novel was something I wanted to do, telling the story of Nick O’Reilly was something I had to do. So that evening, I told my wife that I was shelving the thriller and starting on a new project and, the following morning, I began writing The Life O’Reilly and have never looked back.
2. What is the most challenging aspect of writing? Most rewarding?
Having balance in my life is a top priority, so finding the time to write, while also having a family and a demanding legal career, is a challenge. When I’m writing, I usually wake up at 4:00 a.m. (as crazy as that sounds!), but with the busy life that I lead, it’s not always possible to maintain that kind of schedule. After all, sleep is important!
The most rewarding aspect of writing is the wonderful reactions I get from readers!
3. Did you always plan to end the book the way you did?
Yes, because the ending reminds readers to live fully and truthfully in the present with nothing held back. It also emphasizes the importance of taking control over one’s own destiny and nurturing what’s most precious in life today, because you never know what tomorrow may bring.
4. Are any of the characters composites of attorneys you have encountered over the years?
Nick O’Reilly is an example of people who are unhappy or unfulfilled in some aspect of their lives, but are caught up in the tension between following their hearts and the practicalities of making life changes and the attendant risks.
5. The character of Phil reminded me of Anonymous Lawyer. Ever read it?
I did – it’s a great read (but Phil is much nastier!).
6. Any advice you would offer to would-be novelists?
Nothing great comes without sacrifice. Work as hard as you can to perfect your craft and then invite and embrace criticism from experienced professionals. If you are open-minded, their feedback will make your work better and you will become a better writer. Also, write from inspiration and with honesty and don’t worry about what other people might think of you. If you pour your heart onto the pages, great things will happen and readers will find your work compelling.
7. I think The Life O’Reilly would make a spectacular movie & have some casting ideas. Who could you see portraying Nick? Dawn?
Thanks! I’ve always pictured Ed Burns playing Nick. Believe it or not, I’m still trying to cast Dawn!
8. Like Nick, I am both an attorney and musician (piano is my primary instrument). Are you a musician? If not, do you have any other creative/artistic outlet other than writing?
I loved playing the piano as a kid. It was a big part of my life for several years until my teacher, who was truly amazing, moved away. Unfortunately, after a series of uninspiring replacements, I lost interest and focused on other activities like sports. I’ve always looked back, though, and vowed to myself that one day I’ll start playing again. In the meantime, I’m living vicariously through my fictional characters!
9. I understand that you are working on your second novel. What can you tell readers about it? When will be it available?
It is an emotional story of love and redemption that explores the politics of a family business and the impact it has on the relationships it has on its inter-generational members who struggle to understand the differences in each other’s values. I don’t know yet when it will be available.
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