I hate to admit that I kinda gave up on this book. I feel guilty about it, too, since it was a gift, but I found that I didn’t care enough for Edna O’Brien’s The Light of Evening to read the last 60 pages or so in depth. It’s too bad, because the writing overall is often gorgeous. I truly enjoyed the reading experience for that aspect. The topic of the book is an interesting one as well: a broken mother-daughter relationship. But the whole time I was reading, I couldn’t get a good sense of what the point of it all was supposed to be. Even after thinking about the book for a few days, I don’t know.
The Light of Evening starts with Dilly’s departure for the hospital, because she might have ovarian cancer. The journey to the hospital, the check-in there, and her first meeting with the nurses and fellow patients are intermingled with her reminiscences of an earlier, grander journey. Back in the 1920s, in defiance of her own mother, Dilly boarded a ship to America in search for a different life. She lived with her cousin in New York and eventually found a job as a domestic servant. She was dismissed when she was wrongly accused of theft. Yet this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Dilly found decent lodgings, became an apprentice to a seamstress—her specialty were button holes—and fell in love. For perhaps the first time in her life, Dilly was happy. But then a misunderstanding forced her to give up on her love and return to Ireland. There, ashamed of her seeming failure, Dilly quickly agreed to marry a rich man for whom she had no romantic feelings. This is where the flashbacks end. The first section of the book wraps up with Dilly impatiently waiting for her daughter Eleanora to come visit her in the hospital.
I really enjoyed this first part, especially the scenes from Dilly’s life in New York. The pacing is very fast, and I think the stream-of-consciousness writing successfully illustrates the quick pace of life in a big city. Dilly’s wonder, and also her terror, at having to face the unknown and mastering it are brought to life with very descriptive and intimate writing. If only the book had continued this way.
The second part of the book is about Eleanora. It begins with “scenes of a marriage” that show how Eleanora eloped with a writer, married him when she became pregnant, and began an affair with an editor who encouraged her to write her own book. Her marriage ends in divorce, and the affair is quickly followed by more affairs. While it was interesting to figure out what exactly happened to Eleanora, I would have liked more insight. There aren’t many women in literature who give up their marriage and children to live independently and in defiance of the conventions of their times, so rather than “scenes,” it would have been nice to get some introspection. Unlike Dilly, Eleanora remained elusive to me. I found out more about the interior decoration of a house where Eleanora had an affair than about her feelings. In this part especially, I repeatedly felt like there was no focus to the story. I could not tell whether a detail was important to the story or not. I also kept waiting to find out why Eleanora was acting the way she was and why her relationship with Dilly was so rocky, but I didn’t get a satisfactory explanation.
Eleanora does finally arrive at the hospital to see her mother, but to Dilly’s great disappointment, she only stays for a little while and quickly rushes off again to be with a new lover. This was the point where I gave up. I was too frustrated by the seemingly rambling narrative. From here on, there were a lot of journal entries and letters that referenced different moments in time, and it was hard to figure out when they were written and to what they were referring. Sometimes, I couldn’t even tell who was speaking, Dilly or Eleanora. I don’t mind “working” for a story, and unlikeable characters often make for the most interesting ones, but I need something other than wonderful writing in return. I was hoping for something as great as O’Brien’s The Country Girls, but I didn’t find it in this book.
I don’t feel too bad about this dud, though, because it’s full speed ahead for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by 746 Books and The Fluff Is Raging. I am now reading Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, and it is a tour de force.