on the love object

Expansive and moving, the stories of Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object showcase the famous novelist’s talent for short fiction.

fullsizeoutput_2f46First released in 2015, The Love Object brings together thirty-one short stories the Irish writer crafted between 1968 and 2011. The pieces range from the warmhearted and wistful to the melancholic and pensive, and they encompass a wide range of subjects. Coming of age, social conflict, national identity, sexual tension, and sorrow are but a few of author’s most common themes. As eclectic as O’Brien’s stories are, though, they consistently explore the rich inner lives of Irish women, young and old.

The title story, “The Love Object,” offers the perfect introduction to the writer’s work. The story follows Martha, a divorced mother of two sons, as she begins an affair with an older married man of some fame. In direct prose, Martha recollects the short relationship’s high and low points; she and her lover spend “seventeen occasions” dining, dancing, and drinking wine together, before circumstance forces them to part, promising to still “meet from time to time.”

As with many of O’Brien’s stories, the narrator proves remarkably poised even as she recollects moments of great emotional exhilaration or distress. “Another thing he did that endeared him was to fold back the green silk bedspread,” she remarks of the first night they spent together. Of the affair’s end, she says only, “I was a stranger to myself. Hate was welling up. I wished multitudes of humiliation on him.”

Straightforward plots, candid narrators, bittersweet endings. The frank acknowledgment of sexual desire, regret over an irretrievable past, ambivalent feelings toward relationships that have long since collapsed. These are features shared by most of the stories gathered in The Love Object, regardless of the type of bond they describe.

And the pieces vividly portray all kinds of romances. In “Sister Imelda,” a former schoolgirl describes the crush she once nurtured for an older nun, so intense that she wished to become a nun herself simply so “that though we might never be free to express our feelings we would be under the same roof, in the same cloister, in mental and spiritual conjunction all our lives.” “The Widow,” by contrast, charts the ill-fated course of a “gushing, bubbly” love the aging eponymous character tries to strike up with a “childlike and affectionate” man.

Even as many of the stories center on love and longing, they also explore other facets of daily life. Reading as a kind of feminist response to Joyce’s “The Dead,” “Lantern Slides” depicts a Dublin dinner party bringing together men and women of all social classes; lively conversation and smart social commentary sit beside memories of a painful, fleeting affair. A breathtaking ending offers much needed catharsis.

At 525 pages The Love Object isn’t the kind of collection that can be easily finished in a few sittings. O’Brien’s precise prose also conveys so much in so few words that quick reads risk glossing over the subtleties of each tale. The world of the text is well worth dwelling in for weeks, and I’m looking forward to reading O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy sometime in the future.

11 thoughts on “on the love object

  1. I really appreciate the distinction you’ve made between some stories being wistful and some being melancholic. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see both; while reading, however, I felt only the melancholy. I’d have to reread, but I wonder if melancholy is stronger in those which feel more “of the time” and wistful being more the case in stories which are more distinctly in the past, things that have been survived. Her stories, I think they’re amazing: but I feel they take a toll in reading. Or maybe I need a thicker skin.

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    1. I hadn’t thought of that, but that definitely seems accurate. Distance affords some of the narrators a certain level of security that others lack—the former might still wish things had turned out differently, but they don’t seem as controlled by their regret/grief.

      Couldn’t agree more that her stories are brilliant but emotionally devastating in an understated sort of way. I felt I had to take breaks between each of the stories, since the endings were so moving.

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  2. Beautiful review, Michael! I haven’t read an Edna O’Brien book yet, but after reading your review, I am tempted to read this one. I loved reading your thoughts on all the stories, especially, ‘Lantern Slides’. That is a story I definitely want to read soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Vishy! I think you’d like O’Brien’s style of writing, and I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts if you ever do have the chance to check out some of her stories. I’m finding that her work sticks with you over time.

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  3. so “that though we might never be free to express our feelings we would be under the same roof, in the same cloister, in mental and spiritual conjunction all our lives.”

    Okay, that is the most intense crush I have ever heard of. I will say that I loved these stories a woman in my MFA program wrote about young and elderly nuns falling in love. When you get a convent full of women, everything starts to seem sensual in the right writers hands!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read many nun stories, but I can see that – and O’Brien’s definitely one of those writers, conveying so much in such a short space. Her storytelling is just so gripping.

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