(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

O’Brien’s central theme in The Country Girls Trilogy is the pursuit of happiness through a loving relationship. That her two central characters are female may win her an audience with some women, but the notion, particularly in Kate’s case, that loneliness and despair can only be combatted through a dependent relationship with a man is not acceptable to many.

Baba’s objectivity about herself, on the other hand, is more stimulating. Despising “Mavourneen mush,” she has no time for whining self-pity; normally clear-eyed, she takes the party with her wherever she goes. “Self-emulation” to the bitter end is her verdict on her friend Kate. What does this malapropism mean? Kate certainly tries to “emulate” many romantic heroines, from Cinderella to her dream mother; “immolation” of self is the result. Baba, for her part, is not given to that kind of fantasy. She is a survivor, a pragmatist, and one who loves her friend, surely rebutting critic Anatole Broyard’s suggestion that O’Brien’s women cannot get along in life.

To open the trilogy at any of O’Brien’s Irish scenes, or any scene in which Baba is onstage, is to be swept away by the fascination of the minutiae of living, superbly observed and articulated, and to enter a fully realized and complex world. The cast of neatly sketched supporting characters is impressively large. Tom (the Ferret) Duggan, of indeterminate age, is one such village “character” who inhabits the world of the girls’ years in the west of Ireland. His erratic services as driver (he has only one hand) allow Kate to escape from her father and give him a chance to propose himself as a husband: “What more could a woman want?”

Yet it is through Baba—who came to her, O’Brien writes, through impatience with her own character—that the trilogy finally triumphs. This character, redolent of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, is for critic Mary Jo Salter a large part of the reason that the reader comes away from the trilogy “feeling at least a little glad.” For her part, O’Brien is on record admiring the work of her fellow Irish novelist Joyce, and she has indeed written about him enthusiastically in her biography James and Nora (1981) and elsewhere.