Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls Trilogy was originally released as three separate novels: The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). This collected edition from 1986 includes an Epilogue as well, rounding out the story of two Irish girls who grow up, fall in and out of love, and get involved in bad relationships in the 1950s/early 1960s. O’Brien’s writing is a delight to read. She mixes humor with sadness and tragedy. Caithleen Brady (Kate) and Bridget Brennan (Baba) are both trying to find love and happiness, but strict religious and social mores as well as limited educational and economic opportunities are major obstacles to that. Even more formidable for Kate are her unrealistic expectations and poor choices when it comes to love and marriage.
The first two books are told from Kate’s point of view, and it’s easy to feel sorry for her. Kate grows up in poverty in rural Ireland. Her mother is hard working and loving, her father a dangerous, violent alcoholic. Her best friend Baba comes from a better-off family and frequently bullies and abuses Kate. When Kate wins a scholarship to a convent school, it seems that life is about to turn around. She might escape her village and those who oppress her. But then tragedy strikes, Kate loses her mother, and she ends up closer than ever to Baba and her family. She and Baba go to convent school together, leave it together, and try to build exciting, independent lives in Dublin, then London. In the first two books, the girls’ attempts to leave their village behind and to develop their love lives occupy center stage. Both girls are pretty, but Kate’s big green eyes and auburn hair attract the attentions of adult men while she is still a teenager. She especially welcomes the attentions of “Mr. Gentleman,” the married Frenchman who lives in the village. Kate’s naiveté and her desire to be taken care of are rather sad. As she later begins an affair with a married man in London, she admits,
I did not know whether I should risk staying another night or not. I was trying to decide …. I thought of other woods, dampness, cowslips in a field of high grass, all the imaginary men I had ever talked to and into whose arms I had swooned in a moment of ecstatic reconciliation. But I could not decide; I had never made decisions in my life. My clothes had been bought for me, my food decided on, even my outings were decided by Baba.
From the beginning, Baba has been the more independent and savvy of the two. While not book smart, she is street smart. Baba was often a bully to Kate in their teen years, and it was she who led the way to both Dublin and London. The third book, facetiously titled Girls in Their Married Bliss, features chapters told from Baba’s point of view. She pulls no punches when it comes to assessing Kate’s situation or her own. And while the reader might still feel some sympathy for Kate, one also sympathizes with Baba, who becomes quite exasperated with Kate and her dreamy, unrealistic romanticism. After Kate has run to Baba for help to escape from her miserable husband and marriage, Baba goes to some trouble to find a place for her. But then, Baba sees that Kate is having a change of heart.
She pitied Eugene, she said. He was a misfit. He loved his child. She couldn’t be responsible if he went mad….
The upshot is, her on the telephone to him, bursting over with apology and saying she shouldn’t have done it…. She was so goddamn servile I could have killed her. Telling him that he should have met a good woman, but that there was no such thing. Letting the sex down with a bang.
Still, Baba does care about Kate and tries to help when she can. Baba’s lot in life is not easy, but she is much better able to handle disappointment and trouble than Kate. Perhaps this is because Baba has always been more self-reliant and independent than her friend. Baba knows that she has made a bad marriage, and she describes it with some humor even though her husband turns into a brute.
I knew that I’d end up with him, he being rich and a slob and the sort of man who would buy you seasick tablets before you traveled. You won’t believe it but I felt sorry for him….
An Irishman: good at battles, sieges, and massacres. Bad in bed.
The third book ends with any hope for “married bliss” very much over for both women. The Epilogue, written some 20 years later, also shows us Kate and Baba 20 years later. I’m wondering why O’Brien felt compelled to create this extra chapter. It made an already grim resolution to the trilogy even bleaker, but the paths that each woman had taken seemed appropriate, unsurprising. I just might rather have left it to my imagination, but some editor probably thought that it would sell more copy if the author updated her work for the new edition. I recommend The Country Girls Trilogy for its excellent writing and for its honest depiction of women’s relationships with each other and with men. While opportunities for women have improved in the last 50 years, I think we could all still recognize people we know in the dreamy romantic Kate and the self-involved realist Baba.