#Begorrathon17: Edna O’Brien’s The Light of Evening

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.

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17 comments

  1. I’ve not read this though I loved early O’Brien books about Kate and Baba and loved her last book Little Red Chairs. In between there were a few mmmm’s for me! Spinning Heart was brilliant – and his short stories Slanting Of The Sun even better!!!!

    • Goodness, don’t tell me that! Do you know how tempted I am now to order the book? I’ve been fighting the temptation ever since finishing The Spinning Heart. 🙂 I think I will go back and finish O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy before coming back to her more recent novels. But I will keep Little Red Chairs in mind. Thank you.

  2. I think I would have to be in the right mood for something like this. It does sound rather frustrating. Was it one of O’Brien’s early novels? I’m wondering if she was still trying to find her style as a writer when she penned this one?

    • I would have liked to know why she made certain choices, and whether she regretted any of them. I think that would have made her more relatable as a character. Or at least I would have felt like I knew her a little bit. I think I was most frustrated by the fact that I never understood why she acted the way she did.

  3. You know it’s pretty bad when you get to the last 60 pages and can’t finish them.
    This made me laugh: “I found out more about the interior decoration of a house where Eleanora had an affair than about her feelings.” It makes me wonder if the author even knew, herself, the motivations and feelings behind the characters’ actions.

    • Some people have speculated that O’Brien was working through some of her own troubled relationship with her mother in this book. That would explain a few things, but that didn’t improve my reading experience or enjoyment of the book. I don’t think this book would have improved her apparently rocky relationship with her mother. 😉

    • If you look at other people’s review of this book, it seems that I am not the only one who has some problems with the book. Since this is only the second book by O’Brien I have read, I can’t really suggest where to start with her, but I much preferred her first book, The Country Girls.

  4. It’s a shame this one didn’t work for you. I find Edna O’Brien to be a bit hit or miss. Thanks for taking part though and I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying The Spinning Heart (which I LOVED!)

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