Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Edna O'Brien's The Lonely Girls - a study in subtle storytelling (Book Review)

Edna O'Brien
"The Lonely Girls" is the second in Edna O'Brien's 1960's masterpiece and under-read (at least in this country) trilogy of books about two Irish girls moving from childhood to adulthood.

Where "The Country Girls" introduced us to our lead character, Caithleen (Kate) and her friend Baba and watched them through a series of transitions through high-school both in and out of their small home town, "The Lonely Girls" spends its time almost totally within a single moment. This moment is stretched over months (exploring a relationship), yet it is is much more a case study of the dynamics between two people and the evolution of Kate's understanding of herself as a women. It is strong, clear, and subtle writing at its best.

In "The Lonely Girls" we find Kate and Baba living in the boarding house in Dublin and Kate working in the grocery. They go out dancing at night, try on new makeup and the latest fashions, when they can afford them, and then promptly forget those heavenly new shoes on the bus when weather forces them to wear boots.

Just as in "The Country Girls," Kate and Baba are far from perfect, angelic women. What they are is REAL women. It is so refreshing and endearing and rewarding to read a book with an imperfect heroine. Kate has some good qualities, for sure, but she's also figuring a lot out, and doing so in the midst of early feminism, Irish Catholic/Protestant conflict, young adult-hood, and a rapidly changing world.

She is no moral center, she is not an idol, she is not an angel on a pedestal, nor is she a morality tale. O'Brien is chronicling the very real life of a very real person, through very real, but mostly mundane things, including what it means to find one's-self romantically and sexually (not in a forced way, but simply because developmentally, that is where a 21 year old's head often is).

As the plot, such as it minimally (and thankfully - I'm not much of a plot lover) is, moves forward, Kate meets an older man, Eugene, around 35ish, separated from his wife but not yet divorced, and living alone. As they get to know each other, his worldly charms (he's a documentary film maker) and grumpy quirks (he's a mix of a hermit, a farmer, and an artiste) work their spell on Kate and in some odd way, her external simplicity fills a spot in him.

The entire book is devoted to the small amount of time they spend together, with Kate ultimately (and temporarily) moving into his house, the havoc that wreaks on her family and the community, but also on what it means for two very different people, who need very different things, and are at very different developmental stages, to try and make a relationship work.

Two things are fascinating about these characters and the dynamic of their interaction. The first, is that while Kate presents outwardly simple: she's a country bumpkin, trying to be fashionable, trying to fit in, but honestly doesn't; she's actually (at least as the narrator) acutely aware and attuned to the world. It is through this mix of knowing her as an astute narrator combined with seeing how she presents herself to others (the 21-year-old vs. the wise narrator) that we get a true feel that the "real" Kate lies somewhere in between - a person who may quite literally (the scene's with her dad, yikes!) have been held back by her circumstances all these years.

The other fascinating thing is Eugene and trying to understand what he "wants" from Kate in a partner. Eugene was/is married to an American woman who is spoken endearingly of by his friends. Why isn't he with her, it seems she might even still have feelings for him. They have a young daughter together whom he seems devoted to even though he rarely sees her now that they are in America. He is a man of words and books and travel. He is also 15 years older than Kate and in a very different part of his development.

What then, does he see in Kate? Is it that she has the ruddy good-looks of a healthy Irish girl? Is it her striking red hair? Could it be the way she seems naive and simple and gives him an opportunity to teach her about the world and thus feel important? It is never quite clear what he is getting out of it. It seems however, that she cannot "keep up" with him intellectually and over time, their relationship proves quite fraught as she wants earnest doting traditionality and he is uncomfortable with any perception of being "tied down" or hindered by her own idiosyncrasies, fears, and anxieties.

At first that last sentence reads as though O'Brien were somehow reinforcing traditional gender and social roles and presenting stereotypical archetypes simply through having her characters exemplify them so typically. But O'Brien presents these as factors of their experiences and age, not only their gender, although for sure these are undeniably mid-century roles.

What makes the writing brilliant, is that O'Brien isn't judging either person or role or their expectations for each other. She is not railing for or against anything, yet we certainly feel the feminist and liberating undertones in the writing, but thankfully her writing is too subtle to beat us over the head. O'Brien is exploring two people, people who very likely would have felt and thought the things they did at the time this story is set, and what happens as those lives collide in the midst of overall changes in society (which play a strong undercurrent in the work). This isn't writing in judgment, it is writing about people, flawed, beholden to social constructs, explored because it is needed to be explored, but never for the point of making a point.

You can guess that Kate and Eugene's relationship does not end well, but it is the journey from flirting to romance to realization that makes "The Lonely Girls" so well done. Nothing really "happens" in the strictest of plot senses, although certainly events take place. It is more the subtle shifts of how they look at each other, themselves, and their relationship that are the substance of this work.

As with the prior book, the writing is clear, simple (without being simplistic), beautiful, with brisk pacing, detail when needed, and speed when warranted. Whether you are able to relate to Kate's story directly or not, it is a story that feels very intimately real. Please consider reading the whole trilogy. I'll be back with a discussion of the third book "Girls in their Married Bliss" when I've finished it. But if the first two are any indication, it'll be amazing as well. Happy reading!


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