The Country Girls
Edna O'Brien
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The Country Girls

Edna O'Brien
192 pages
June 2002
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The Country Girls is the first book of a trilogy, and it leaves the reader panting for the next installment in the tragicomic life of Caithleen and her somehow sometimes friend Baba Brennan.

Baba is a vain, grasping girl who needs friend like Caithleen, someone who broods about the feelings of others and gets good grades as well. Each time Baba hurts or betrays Kate, you want our heroine to get finally angry, but they are locked in a dance much like the one depicted on the front cover of this pretty little book. Baba is the more sophisticated, her mother an acknowledged town slut, and Caithleen is the child of a noted drunkard and a mother who drowned mysteriously in a tragic scene with the merest hint of debauchery: “I knew that Mama would never have a grave for me to put flowers on. Somehow she was more dead than anyone I had ever heard of.”

Baba manages to lead naïve Caithleen into all sorts of devilment, including a final break from the convent school where Caithleen’s won a scholarship (and Baba’s followed not by cleverness but with her parent’s money). They disgrace themselves utterly by dropping a filthy note scrawled on a religious card where the nuns are sure to find it -- Baba’s idea, though it is the easily-led Caithleen who takes the brunt of it, being told by the Reverend Mother, “Your mind is so despicable that I cannot conceive how you have gone unnoticed all these years.”. Together then, the girls go to Dublin where they begin life, in their late teens, as free women learning the world.

Caithleen seeks to please and has longings for a married man known as “Mr. Gentleman” who is clearly determined to seduce her. Baba seeks to exploit others and steals cakes, tomatoes and anything she can get her claws on while trysting with unromantic middle-aged men because “Young men have no bloody money.” When they go out on a double date she admonishes Kate, “Will you, for Chrissake, stop asking fellers if they’ve read James Joyce’s Dubliners?”

Kate nourishes a yen for true romance, which she’s sure she’ll find with the mysterious Mr. Gentleman with his French airs, while Baba, ever the pragmatist, says of their boring escorts, “Think of the dinner…lamb and mint sauce.”

When we are forced to leave these delightful young women, Baba has begun a six-month stay at a tuberculosis sanatorium. “She left the blue necklace on my bed with a note. It said: To Caithleen in remembrance of all the good times we had together. You’re a right-looking eejit.” Four years to the day after the death of her mother, Caithleen is preparing to meet Mr. Gentleman in Dublin from whence they will sail to Venice for a proper romance, she in a lilac-colored nighty borrowed from the landlady and smelling of camphor. He does not show up.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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