“A Rose in the Heart of New York” chronicles several decades in the lives of a rural Irish family, focusing principally on the daughter, who is born in the story’s first scene, and the mother, who is buried in the last. This one turn in the ancient cycle of birth and death constitutes a vivid and moving struggle by both to understand their relationship with each other and with the culture that inevitably shapes them.
If intensity of devotion is a reliable gauge of a happy relationship, then mother and daughter must have been happy indeed. The daughter follows her mother everywhere, watching each of her movements, absorbing her manners and attitudes. The mother dotes on her daughter, sacrificing for her, “spoiling” her as much as their poverty will allow. There is a thin line, however, between healthy devotion and something closer to unnatural obsession, and the reader finds that this line is approached perilously near, if it is not actually crossed.
When the daughter is sent to a convent, she is forced to find some way of living apart from her mother. Her solution to this forced separation is to adopt a nun as a sort of surrogate mother, lavishing her with praise, presents, and devotion and receiving the same in return. That their relationship is unnaturally and unhealthily intense is indicated by the disapproval of the convent superiors. Chastised, the two decide to “break up.” Out of the convent, the daughter’s life is not so different from many another young woman’s; she has affairs, marries “in haste,” separates, has more affairs, becomes an independent career woman, and so on. Throughout, her mother never quite leaves her thoughts; in fact, she tends to see her own affairs and life in the light of her mother’s life and attitudes. The last scene between mother and daughter occurs when they go on a brief vacation together. They are closer, physically, than at any time since the daughter left home, but closeness brings no revelation. Indeed, they are struck by how little they understand of each other.
In the brief final section, the daughter learns that her mother has died. She rushes home just in time for the funeral. Afterward, she rummages around in her mother’s things and finds a letter that her mother had written to an old beau whom she had met while living in New York as a girl. Later, she finds an envelope addressed to her in her mother’s handwriting; inside are a few trinkets and a small amount of money. The reader can be forgiven for expecting the letter and the envelope to contain the key to the whole, to provide the revelation or epiphany with which many short stories culminate. Edna O’Brien, however, avoids easy resolutions. The letter is sadly banal; the envelope contains not a word, not a clue to the mystery. The story ends with the daughter farther than ever from understanding her mother or herself.