Friday, August 24, 2018

The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien gives us an honest to goodness REAL young woman to root for (Book Review)

The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien
My old, used, yellowing copy
I find books to read by reading lists of books that people think I should read. I like reading what other people consider their best or favorite books. Reading why they like them tends to help me make an accurate determination of whether I should read it (particularly when they talk about the author's craft). Somewhere along the way a list I encountered mentioned The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien. I'd never heard or her, but now that I have, I've already bought several more of her works.

The Country Girls is part of a trilogy of books including The Lonely Girl and Girls in their Married Bliss. For some reason, the three titles together remind me of the way Laura Ingalls Wilder titled her books and gives me a nice warm feeling. That bit of unrelated randomness aside, I'll start with reviewing The Country Girls but I will most definitely read the other two and post my thoughts here as I do.

The Country Girls is the story of Caithleen and her friend Baba, teens in Ireland at some indiscriminate point after WWII. It was written in 1960 and apparently banned in Ireland before ultimately winning awards. When I've talked other times on this blog as well as in my day job in education about the way we've neglected female authors, queer authors, authors of color, and authors from non-English speaking countries in our children's education, this book serves as a perfect example of what gets lost. Here we have an honest depiction of a real teen girl's internal and external life written by a female author and somehow I had never heard of this before I was in my late thirties (not okay). It's the story of a real teenager with all the imperfections, foibles, follies, stupid decisions, horrors, joys, and in-betweens that go along with that time in life. A time in life that gets celerated in boys, both in the real world and in literature, and nearly forgotten, or crudely drawn, for young women. Combine that importance with an easy writing style that makes the book a pleasure to read, and you have a truly valuable literary experience that should have a place in our young adults' education, personal libraries, and minds.

I won't get into the plot details, but suffice it to say Caithleen comes from a poor farming family with a drunk father who looses money on frivolous things. The book also presents a range of people she comes into contact with, a tragedy, and moving from grade-school to high-school and a little bit beyond. We also spend time with Baba, who is not necessarily a very nice person, but who serves as a very real anchor point for Caithleen throughout.

Caithleen is the heroine that we have needed in that she is not perfect, nor presented in some idealized fashion, nor a manic dream pixie, nor an angel sullied by the horrors of men (think Tess). This isn't some author's belief about what a woman should be. This is a woman author talking about what a young woman is. How literature has missed this (or at least sorely under represented and taught those that do exist). Caithleen has wonderful qualities, and she also has flaws. She makes some good decisions and she makes some bad ones (often in concert with Baba). She has a heart that sends her into some interesting directions with a man that she aught not to have much to do with and yet the stakes are kept comparatively low. And every last moment is utterly believable (Sorry, Martha, for stealing your favorite word, but it worked here!).

This isn't a book of big things, big stories, and big plot. Nor is it a book of big emotions, big revelations, or big ideas. This is a book about a very real person doing very real things that at the time simply weren't talked about (making it ground-breaking in the 1960s) that for some reason still feels like we aren't talking about now, almost 60 years later. It still feels ground-breaking to have a novel, featuring a teenage girl, who does and thinks the things teenagers do and doesn't pathologize, romanticize, or deify the actions or the girl doing them. Caithleen is relatable to any teen now and to anyone who happened to be a teen at some prior point in their lives.

I think back to all the books and movies about teens that simply cannot seem to understand how a teenage girl actually is in the world (ahem, I'm looking at you Paper Towns) and thankful for the occasional one that gets it right (Thirteen - although, thankfully this isn't every teen girl's story either or we'd all be in trouble). (I also think about all the male artists and animators who draw women as if they haven't ever actually seen one - I mean come'on, how can you take Lauren Mayberry and Haley Williams, two of the most beautiful and talented women, and make them look that disfigured?). Anyway, I digress. The Country Girls is a book that effortlessly presents a real young woman's life and perspectives without any over-dramatization.

The only real flaw I found was that it ended too soon for me. My version runs 175 pages and feels longer than a novella and shorter than a novel and the ending doesn't feel fulfilling as a conclusion to a novel. However, knowing that Caithleen's story continues in two more novels gives me hope that the three together will feel more complete. For anyone reading it without the luxury of knowing that two more would be written, the ending could be both jarringly swift and open-ended enough to cause frustration. I wonder if she had always planned for it to be a trilogy?

This book is a solid 7/10 and that score is low only because of the incomplete feeling of the book's rapid and unfinished-feeling ending. After reading the other two in the series, it is quite possible that the collective score would approach an 8 or even a 9 as the writing, characters, emotions, and purpose of the books is certainly worthy of being considered a classic.


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