Monday, June 17, 2019

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien (Book Review)

The newest edition
Girls in Their Married Bliss (on it's own) = 6/10
The Country Girls Trilogy + Epilogue = 9/10

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien is the third in her classic trilogy: "The Country Girls." Originally written in the 1960s, my edition came with a new epilogue written in the 1980s and wow, what a difference that addition made.

I absolutely loved the first book, "The Country Girls" and I really liked the second book "The Lonely Girl" although it was fairly depressing (you can find my reviews HERE and HERE). What I didn't see coming, but maybe can now in retrospect, is just how sad and miserable and, dark and strange the final book would be.

When I finished Girls in Their Married Bliss I was initially very disappointed with the writing, the plot, the character changes, just about everything. But when I read the epilogue, it tied the third novel in with the prior two in a way that dramatically changed how I thought of the first two and made the three work together in a much more haunting way, a way that shows the terrible destiny that our main character, Kate, was almost bound to from birth. However, I won't give away the epilogue's content because it is so vital, but if you do chose to read this book, please find a version with that epilogue.

When we left off at the end of The Lonely Girl, Kate, our young woman and mid-century Irish main character, had left her dour, older, quietly-cruel boyfriend Eugene and was going to finally, we thought, embark on a path of liberation - school, work, and a self-determined life.

The edition I read
That makes the first chapter of "Girls in Their Married Bliss" so jarring. Unlike the prior two books which are told in first person from Kate's perspective, the third novel is told in first person from her friend Baba's perspective or in third person on chapters more dedicated to Kate. This has the effect of depersonalizing and slightly distancing us from Kate. However, when considering the epilogue, this must have been a conscious choice of the author to tie the writing in stylistically to Kate's deteriorating (and distancing) mental state; but more on that to come.

Baba, our narrator this time around, was never a nice person, not when growing up with Kate, not at their convent school, and not when they moved out on their own to live together and find jobs. But so much, if not most, of this third book is Baba's story, at approximately age 25. It is about her marriage, her choices, and what an ugly life she is leading. It is hard not to judge Baba who comes across as spoiled but also crass and mean. She cheats on her husband, who is also a horrible man, but it isn't cheating out of love. But she isn't just mean due to cheating. She isn't nice to Kate (at least when speaking about her) and she just isn't very likable. To have her as the main narrator and so much of the third book, and focused on her life, was not what I expected, nor a very pleasant story (although well written as the author's works always are - just different).

So what of Kate then? In the opening chapter, Baba catches us up quickly on Kate's last few years, a jump in time forward from the prior novel. Kate has returned to Eugene, giving up her schooling and any possibility of career, and has settled down as a housewife, married to him, and now with a son together, age 5. I had been reading these three novels as a straight-forward feminist work, thinking of Kate as the one who would break through the patriarchy and establish her own agency in a rousing feel-good conclusion. However, I needed to reevaluate these novels instead as a feminist critique on all the ways structures and society were still holding women down, even mid-century. There would be no hurrah at the end as she showed them what women could really do. It seems that Kate and Baba were always meant to suffer in order to hold a mirror up to the world.

We begin to sense that Kate is not well. She had always been sort of middle-of-the-road. That was likable, she wasn't some perfect person being oppressed, she was a real girl in the real world. She could be silly and stupid and insightful and rash and whiny and dependent and exasperating all in turns. But over the course of this novel, her mental health clearly deteriorates as her life continues its muddy trek downward. Compounding her internal struggles, she begins flirtation with another man and Eugene goes cold and passive aggressive, meanly so. Ultimately it is so psychologically abusive that Kate leaves him to keep what shred of sanity she has. The novel focuses on the impact of that separation, Kate's attempts to live on her own, stay a good mother and see her son, and her own widely vacillating emotions.

By the ending of this novel, Kate has suffered a near total collapse in every way. This is hardly the heroic feminist icon I thought she would be when first reading the initial novel. Instead, this is a bleak and harsh look at the very real lives that so many women probably lead, tied down by their parents, their society, their class, and the burdens and scars they bear as a result. I won't give away the ending, but it is not a resolution. For that, you need the epilogue, and it won't be the resolution you were seeking.

However, it is a resolution that helps to situate this third novel in with the first two in a much more Gothic arc for Kate, one that now has a scary echo of her mother's own tragic life. Did Edna O'Brien know about that parallel with her mother when she wrote the first novel, or did it evolve naturally, as the only possible conclusion, from their shared psychic DNA? Who knows, but while it isn't uplifting, it is a fairly amazing bit of writing. And that makes this third novel not a novel on its own, but really ACT 3 of a much larger cycle. The trilogy and epilogue must be read as a single novel to see Edna O'Brien's true brilliance as a writer.

As an important aside, given the current climate in the United States right now (2019), there is a section in this novel that needs to be discussed. CONTENT WARNING - home abortion discussion to follow, skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to read about it. At one point, Baba becomes pregnant by the man she is cheating on her husband with. In desperation she solicits Kate to help her with a home abortion, abortion being illegal in Ireland at the time. The description of the methods and experience is so vivid and disturbing that it should be required reading by anyone who is seeking to end legal abortions. Because women have always needed abortions, and have every right to their body's autonomy, they will find a way. If legal abortion is ended, it will not end abortions, but instead drive them underground and cause nothing but more suffering and death. Those who proclaim to value life are not valuing the woman's life and her body by making abortion illegal. Like so many women throughout history, Baba endures unimaginable physical pain during the attempt. In this case, for all the horrors of their attempted abortion, it doesn't work. Baba now must also bear a child she doesn't want, to a man she'll never see again, while living with a physically abusive husband who knows it cannot possibly be his child. This is not respect for all life, this is another example of the bleak picture of women's lives in modern society that is the crux of Edna O'Brien's three novels. In some ways, this is the truly penultimate scene of the trilogy. For this IS a feminist novel, one determined to expose the quietly lived yet totally unacceptable "normal" that are Kate and Baba's lives - lives so many women can probably see themselves in.

Back to the review specifically. In her decisions to return to Eugene, marry him, cheat on him, and leave him, Kate has undermined any hope of getting out from under the psychological torture of Eugene. He haunts her like a living ghost. Her mental condition deteriorates as she loses everything, and yet her collapse is told in a slightly impersonal, detached manner. This wasn't a pleasant read. And yet, it wasn't supposed to be. This final novel plus the epilogue was Edna O'Brien tearing away any remaining pleasant veneer from the lives of Kate and Baba and women in general. Make no mistake, this trilogy is a tragedy and the payoff is the epilogue which will reward the reader with a true understanding of what the author intended as the inevitability of Kate's journey into adulthood.

Do yourself a favor, when you read this, read all three novels plus the epilogue as if it is one single novel. It will make more sense that way. It will be more meaningful that way. I broke it up with months in between each novel, and I think I lost some of the author's intended emotional arc when I did that.  On it's own, "Girls in Their Married Bliss" doesn't quite work, but as part of the entire trilogy, as simply the third act of a greater story, it is indispensable. On it's own then, it's just a 6/10, but the total trilogy is a strong, incredible, and still prescient 9/10. You can get all four parts on Amazon in a single edition:


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