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The Literary Life of Edna O'Brien: Background information when reading The Love Object

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The Love Object

Selected Stories

by Edna O'Brien

The Love Object by Edna O'Brien X
The Love Object by Edna O'Brien
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  • First Published:
    May 2015, 544 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2017, 544 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder
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About this Book

The Literary Life of Edna O'Brien

This article relates to The Love Object

Print Review

Edna O'Brien Edna O'Brien was born in 1930 in western Ireland, where her parents lived in a picturesque stone house called Drewsboro, built on the remains of a fancy country house her father had helped burn down so the British couldn't use it during the Irish War of Independence after World War I. Her father's family was wealthy, her mother's, poor. They raised racehorses and other livestock. O'Brien grew up exploring the wild country landscape, full of bogs and forests, and observing the unhappiness of her parents. Her father drank and got into debt, and her mother kept the farm going and suffered. Meanwhile, the local Catholic culture was suspicious of literature but flush with storytelling and the old poetry and folklore of the Irish past. Although there weren't many books around, O'Brien says she knew from a young age that she wanted to write. When she did, she mined her rural childhood for good yarns, strange characters, and the domestic details that make her stories especially vivid, like the chocolate box lids used for interior decorating, or the overgrown rhododendron bushes in the dooryards of old farmhouses. Reading her 2013 memoir, Country Girl, side-by-side with The Love Object reveals many traces of life in her art.

When she had graduated the local school, O'Brien went away to convent school in Galway, where the food was terrible and her greatest pleasure was her love for one special nun. (The nature of this love, part passion and part religious ecstasy, is the subject of "Sister Imelda," one of the stories in The Love Object) From here she went on to study pharmacology in Dublin, to enable her to work as a pharmacist, which was her parents' wish for her.

Literature intervened. The big city opened new possibilities, and O'Brien encountered a wider world of broader moral freedom, new stories, and, importantly, books. She read and went to lectures, and soon was publishing her own small newspaper pieces. She began to meet literary people, one of whom was her soon-to-be husband, the writer Ernest Gébler. They married in 1954 and had two children. In 1960 the couple moved to London, where the combination of a well-timed literary lecture (on Fitzgerald and Hemingway) and a sense of alienation spurred O'Brien to start her first novel. "The novel wrote itself, so to speak, in a few weeks," O'Brien told the Paris Review in 1984, "All the time I was writing it I couldn't stop crying."

The Country Girls tells the story of a rural Irish girl who goes to a convent school, has an affair with an older man, and leaves home to enter a wider, more liberated world. The subject matter, particularly the sexual openness of the book, created a scandal in Ireland. The book was banned, and in O'Brien's hometown the parish priest gathered up as many copies as he could and burned them in front of the church.

But O'Brien's career was launched. The Country Girls grew into a trilogy (followed by The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss). In 1962 the novel won a Kingsley Amis Award. In the following five-and-a-half decades, O'Brien has written twenty-two novels and story collections, three works of nonfiction, and five plays. Notable among these is her novel A Pagan Place about a small village not unlike her hometown, and Down by the River about a young rape victim seeking an abortion. Several of her novels, including The Country Girls, have been made into films.

O'Brien's marriage ended in 1964, and she never remarried. She has lived most of her life in London, traveling often to Ireland and doing stints of teaching in New York. Back home in County Clare, the mood has changed. Recently a plaque was installed in her honor near the entrance to her childhood home. The local priest welcomed her from the pulpit, and reminded his parishioners to attend the dedication ceremony.

Picture of Edna O'Brien from Express

This article relates to The Love Object. It first ran in the May 13, 2015 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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