In this ample selection of Edna O’Brien’s short stories, most of them previously collected, there are few or no surprises. For the reader already familiar with O’Brien’s writings, there are the familiar heroines desperately searching for and inevitably disappointed by love. For the general reader, there is the array of familiar elements from popular fiction, film, and television—the innocent country girl betrayed by her seducer; the bright country girl who prospers in the big city, only to find success empty and lonely; the perceptive sophisticate who can seduce any man but can hold on to none; the disappointed married woman whose only marital legacy is a son or two, soon grown and distant; the eternal other woman who simultaneously envies and despises the respectability of the wife.
What makes O’Brien’s writing better than pulp fiction is that she is honest, accurate, and unsparing of her heroines, despite their being patterned so closely after herself. The O’Brien heroine, whether young or middle-aged, whether naïve Irish country girl or sophisticated London writer and public figure, is a woman who defines her essential self in relation to men or, more accurately, in relation to one particular man. She waits on him, waits for him, lives to please him, lives for the next time she will see him, and lives in the expectation of the inevitable waning of love, disappointment, and loss. From the first, she knows that one day he will leave her to return to his wife or to look for another woman. While this is territory which women know and with which they can identify, it has not often been charted so coolly or so deftly. She writes with wonderfully knowing details of the stages of seduction, love, and betrayal—the calculated glances, the carefully chosen dress, the planned accidental meeting, the first dalliance, the excitement of illicit sexual encounters, the inevitable snag (the wife suspects, the wife finds out, the lovers are spotted in public), the quarrel, the parting, the regrets, and, sometimes, the madness and the attempted suicide.
While this material is familiar, it has seldom been presented so artfully, without sentiment or sensationalism. After all, the material of soap opera is the stuff of daily life. O’Brien’s forte lies in capturing the fascinating details of dailiness. She describes particulars brilliantly: the unpainted shop fronts of Irish towns, the ennui and narcissism of the international set, the studied carelessness and lack of curiosity of the sophisticate, the look of fine clothes, the hedonism of luxurious resorts, the delicacies of restaurant menus.
What is wrong with O’Brien’s treatment is not sentiment or tawdriness, both of which she manages to avoid, but the premature taste of ash, the excessive foreknowledge of betrayal, loss, and defeat. O’Brien shares James Joyce’s agenbite of inwit (perhaps its source is their common lapsed but lingering Catholicism), but she lacks his gusto, his revel in experience, his joy in lowlife. As a result, she succumbs frequently to self-pity, feeling so sorry for herself that she makes it hard for the reader to pity her or even deeply to sympathize. After all, self-pity is a private pleasure, upon which the reader hesitates to intrude. O’Brien, as she observes of one of her characters, an elderly woman unable to enjoy her first vacation, suffers from “a whole series of grudges, bitter grudges concerning love, happiness, and her hard impecunious fate. Behind them [the trimmings] lay the real person, who demanded her pound of flesh from life.”
This sourness pervades O’Brien’s many stories of infidelity among the rich and famous. Most of these are first-person narratives, featuring the archetypal O’Brien heroine-victim involved in an affair with a married man. The best of these stories are “The Love Object” and “Paradise.” In “The Love Object,” the protagonist interviews a prominent man on the television show she hosts and they impulsively spend the night together. Although they find the experience pleasurable and not especially guilt-provoking, they determine to end it before it turns into a shabby affair. It comes as no surprise that they do become involved in a shabby affair, which is protracted, messy, furtive, guilty, at times ecstatic, at times disappointing, always complicated. The protagonist, who at first congratulates herself on what she believes to be a one-night interlude, in her words “nice” with “no nasty aftereffects,” falls in love with her married lover and becomes obsessively jealous of him. She purposely goes to a party he is attending, where she catches a glimpse of his wife and where he snubs her. Their relationship deteriorates; she contemplates suicide but is accidentally kept from the attempt. Her obsession turns to hatred and finally mellows into wishing her lover well. By the end of the story, they meet occasionally and her life has almost returned to normal. If this is largely a story of self-deception and its consequences, the heroine remains remarkably oblivious of these implications.
In “Paradise,” the protagonist is once more involved with a wealthy and powerful married man and joins him at his Mediterranean villa, where he is surrounded by beautiful people who regard the young woman cynically and knowingly, waiting for the man to tire of her as he has of others they have met in the past. The natural element of these people is water—not water as representing life, baptism, and rebirth but as suggesting flux and formlessness. They spend their days swimming, sailing, scuba diving, and fishing. The heroine is afraid of water and unable to swim, but her lover patiently provides her with lessons. When her fear does not subside, the number of lessons increases to two daily. Finally, before an audience of all of their friends, she swims the width of the pool. She comes to see this command performance as emblematic of the servitude and coercion of her life with her lover, whereupon she attempts suicide by drowning. Having shown herself to be irredeemably unacceptable, she is coolly sent home...
(The entire section is 2489 words.)