Trailblazing Irish novelist Edna O'Brien delivers the memoir she once believed she'd never write.
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This almost becomes a failing as O'Brien follows her own literary star as it rises, and the stories begin to get shorter, less connected to one another. Because O'Brien traveled in high-flown circles, she moves not just from place to place but from marquee name to marquee name. The regularity of such appearances rather successfully conveys the glittering distractions of success. But the parade of notables does threaten to exhaust the reader's patience. O'Brien manages to hold the court by always giving a well-chosen detail. She has Marlon Brando, for example, at her kitchen table drinking milk while she drinks wine. Norman Mailer wants to kiss her in the rain. She outlines her friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by way of a cabbie's surprise when Jackie O removes her scarf and reveals herself, or the bouquet of flowers she sends to a girl Ari Onassis had flirted with. Jackie O, she writes, "went through life veiled, and left it with her stardust intact."
But these notes on the famous are not the bulk of the book. If there is a lot of stardust in O'Brien's memoir, there is only a thin emotional veil. Which is not to say that this is, precisely, a tell-all. Of central importance, for example, is her early marriage to the Irish writer Ernest Gabler, a fastidious and manipulative man who was evidently threatened by his wife's success. Yet O'Brien has a knack for conveying the depth of his cruelty in a sentence or two. Gabler picks an early fight about a phrase in one of O'Brien's stories, where she has described a "country road tarred very blue." To him, this is an inaccurate description. "But," she writes, "in secret I clung to the blue road, knowing that somewhere in the distance, like a glacier, it would come between us." When, after their initial separation, he tricks her into bringing their children to him, she writes, "Forever after, I have associated the closing of that door with the closing of a lid on a coffin."
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In fact, so traumatic is the breakup of the marriage that she briefly finds herself in despair a hotel room in Singapore with pills "in a handkerchief from long, long ago." The crisis passes, and O'Brien manages to go on writing, in the way of every writer in every writer's memoir, in which – after all – the ending is the one part we surely already know. But this one has more than enough exceptional beauty and skill to make the reader want to go on reading, too.
Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, and The Awl.