Last year, I read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz for Reading Ireland Month, and I likened my experience to “driving past an accident and being unable to look away.” This year, I picked Enright’s The Green Road, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. I didn’t find The Green Road quite as fascinating as The Forgotten Waltz, but the Marvelous Manipulative Mother made up for the slightly lackluster children. Strangely enough, this vague—and not particularly flattering—description was enough for my mom to purchase her own copy of the book. It seems we both have a thing for flawed mothers.
The manipulative mother in this case is Rosaleen. As a young girl, she married beneath her, seduced by a man who told her many beautiful stories. But with time, his words dried up, and even though Rosaleen has always felt loved, she has not been particularly happy in her marriage. This unhappiness is the cause for her strained relationship with her children: Dan, Emmet, Constance, and Hanna. In Rosaleen’s opinion, her children have turned out to be rather mediocre, and none is able to live up to her expectations.
Thus not surprisingly, the lives of the four children are not particularly happy either. Told from alternating perspectives, we find out that Dan left home to become a priest, but instead, he found himself in New York City, coming to terms with his homosexuality during the Aids crisis. Emmet has also left home at a young age, working ceaselessly but disillusioned to ease the suffering of people in Africa. Constance might be the happiest of the four children, with a good husband and children of her own, but there is the threat of breast cancer hanging over her. The youngest, Hanna, was to be an actress, but an unplanned pregnancy put an end to a fizzling career, and now she is struggling to raise her child while battling alcoholism at the same time. Rosaleen’s influence on her children can easily be seen by the reader, if not by the characters themselves.
The children are not close to each other; childhood grudges and misunderstandings, in addition to Rosaleen’s behavior, have prevented that. They haven’t spent time together in many years, and it is not until Rosaleen announces that she will sell her house that they all come together again for one last Christmas in their childhood home. While there’s no doubt that the parts about the four children are brilliantly written, for me, the story took off once everyone was assembled again at home and I was able to see them in each other’s company. Rosaleen’s passive-aggressive behavior towards her children—with the exception of Dan perhaps—is something to behold. She casually explains that she will move in with Constance once the house is sold, much to her unsuspecting daughter’s surprise. It is the first she has heard of Rosaleen’s plan. And when Rosaleen looks at Hanna, shakes her head, and says “you would have looked so pretty playing the violin,” I have to tip my hat to her. That is a perfect manipulator at work. Showing your children how little you think of them with just one sentence takes some skill. I also need to tip my hat to Enright, for being able to not make Rosaleen a completely detestable character despite statements like the one just mentioned.
I think The Green Road deserves its spot on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize. Enright has created another great dysfunctional family. While I wish there would have been more interaction between the family members, her sharp prose and her ability to make the ordinary important made this book an enjoyable read.