Feature

Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien hardly seemed destined for a life in the literary spotlight.

(Little, Brown, $28)

Edna O’Brien hardly seemed destined for a life in the literary spotlight, said Heller McAlpin in NPR.org. When the Irish author wrote her breakout debut, The Country Girls, she was a convent-school-educated, nearly 30-year-old married mother of two who’d just recently moved to London. Yet that sexually frank 1960 novel, which was banned and burned in her native Ireland, won wide acclaim, launched a “barrier-busting” career, and helped place O’Brien at the heart of London’s swingingest decade. With this “exquisite account,” readers are invited to join O’Brien in revisiting an adventure that’s now spanned 82 years and has been “filled with famous people, some regrettable choices, inadequately reciprocated love, and, always, a passion for words and literature.”

The book’s first half is “laced with O’Brien’s characteristic lyricism,” said Kristin Tillotson in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Raised in County Clare, young Edna had a grim early life: She and her mother lived in fear of her alcoholic father’s rages. Yet O’Brien “paints an almost magical picture” of herself as a girl who wrote imaginative stories, developed a crush on a nun at school, and discovered men while studying to be a pharmacist in Dublin. The startling array of celebrities that populate the book’s second half—O’Brien had a fling with Robert Mitchum and partied with Sean Connery and Princess Margaret—is undeniably entertaining. But you get the sense that this period interests her less; this section feels “both flatter and flightier.”

Yet anytime I grew slightly irritated by the author’s name-dropping, “I would almost immediately be seduced again by her exquisite use of language,” said Mary Robinson in The Irish Times. Her reputation for colorful living aside, O’Brien is “one of the great creative writers of her generation.” Better yet, she hasn’t softened one bit, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Her prudish critics might not have liked it, but she’s lived “an outsize life to match her outsize talent” and lets her brilliance speak for itself. “At 82, she continues to be trouble, of the best sort.”

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