Country Girl: A Memoir

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Country Girl is Edna O'Brien's exquisite account of her dashing, barrier-busting, up-and-down life."—National Public Radio

When Edna O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls, was published in 1960, it so scandalized the O'Briens' local parish that the book was burned by its priest. O'Brien was undeterred and has since created a body of work that bears comparison with the best writing of the twentieth century. Country Girl brings us face-to-face...

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Country Girl: A Memoir

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Country Girl is Edna O'Brien's exquisite account of her dashing, barrier-busting, up-and-down life."—National Public Radio

When Edna O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls, was published in 1960, it so scandalized the O'Briens' local parish that the book was burned by its priest. O'Brien was undeterred and has since created a body of work that bears comparison with the best writing of the twentieth century. Country Girl brings us face-to-face with a life of high drama and contemplation.

Starting with O'Brien's birth in a grand but deteriorating house in Ireland, her story moves through convent school to elopement, divorce, single-motherhood, the wild parties of the '60s in London, and encounters with Hollywood giants, pop stars, and literary titans. There is love and unrequited love, and the glamour of trips to America as a celebrated writer and the guest of Jackie Onassis and Hillary Clinton. Country Girl is a rich and heady accounting of the events, people, emotions, and landscape that have imprinted upon and enhanced one lifetime.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Edna O'Brien strict Irish family hoped that pharmacy school would set her on the right path, but even getting the license didn't help. It was bad enough that she ignored their objections, married a writer, and ran off to London; it became unspeakably worse when her first scandalous novel was published, alarming the local parish priest sufficiently to require a public book burning. In this memoir, this contentedly fallen Sister of Mercy graduate reflects not only on restrictive childhood and adolescence, but also her encounters with Paul McCartney, Harold Pinter, Marlon Brando, Jackie Onassis, Jude Law, and many, many more. One great read.

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
This memoir is the book one has long wanted from Ms. O'Brien. She has famously had an adventurous life…You might come…for the gossip, but you'll stay for this memoir's ardent portrait of a young woman struggling to find her identity both as a human being and a writer…Country Girl is, like Ms. O'Brien's best fiction, plain-spoken and poetic in equal measure.
The New York Times Book Review - Stacy Schiff
Any book that is any good must be autobiographical, O'Brien has asserted. And any memoir that is any good must be better-proportioned than real life. This one is shapely in the curvaceous ways of longing and regret. It begins with a diagnosis of hearing loss and ends with a set of 3-D glasses, both of them revelatory. O'Brien does not omit the times when the words failed to come, when the heart shattered, when…she had very nearly had enough. The past surges and eddies throughout, with a logic and texture of its own. Its author remains beguiling and brave, as lucid as ever about the rapturous lows and the punishing highs. Her eye is pitiless and her prose sumptuous.
The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
Edna O'Brien, for whom the word "redoubtable" may well have been coined, has lived a long and quite remarkable life…the author of more than two dozen books, she has at last turned to the story of her own life in this memoir, though of course her life has been the raw material for much of the fiction—much of which is entirely extraordinary—she has written since the publication of her first novel, The Country Girls, in 1960. The first couple of hundred pages of Country Girl are wonderful, the second 150 rather less so, but anyone who knows and loves her work, as I do, will want to read it from start to finish.
Publishers Weekly
Demure reflections on her celebrated literary life well lived comprise this lovely memoir by Irish novelist and short story author O’Brien (Saints and Sinners). Organized thematically, O’Brien meanders from her deeply Catholic, decidedly respectable upbringing in Drewsboro, County Clare, where the budding young writer experienced the sensuous rural impressions that imbued her early work, through schooling with the Galway nuns and a four-year apprenticeship at a chemist’s shop in Dublin. But she yearned for a glittering literary world, “with all its sins and guile and blandishments.” Indeed, marrying the older, cosmopolitan novelist Ernest Gebler in her early 20s allowed O’Brien instant entrée into the literary milieu. She also gave birth to two sons. The publication of her first novel, The Country Girls, in 1960, spelled both the end of her marriage to a seething, resentful husband and her start as the novelist of the moment, reviled by the church for her depictions of liberated, sexual women while feted by literary lions of London and New York. Fetching, game, and talented, O’Brien attracted numerous famous studs, and she makes some bedroom confessions, revealing a night of “sparkle” with Robert Mitchum. The book also includes lively depictions of her Saturday-night parties in her house in Putney, England, during the Swinging Sixties. From Chelsea to New York to Donegal, O’Brien always returns to the enduring heart of her writing. Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Philip Roth
"Edna O'Brien has made of her memories something of both precision and depth, a book that, letting us see her as she was, jumps with an all-consuming curiosity from one lucidly narrated event to another, the scenes of disenchantment and bewilderment mingling with an assortment of surprises, traps, and ventures that are often, but not always, disastrous shocks. She is an observer of tears, including her own, and is able to differentiate what she calls the good tears from the bad. Only Colette is her equal as a student of the ardors of an independent woman who is also on her own as a writer."
From the Publisher
"Edna O'Brien's Country Girl shimmers with heart, soul and literary brilliance."- Nancy R. Ives, Library Journal

"After dazzling readers and reviewers around the world for decades, O'Brien, now 82, finally turns her attention to her own life. Country Girl is as dramatic as any novel."-O, the Oprah Magazine

"O'Brien is skilled at snatching triumph from melancholy....Thrilling, sensuous, unblinking."- Lisa Shea, Elle

"Edna O'Brien had to exile herself, like Joyce and Beckett, to become herself. Mad Ireland hurt her into prose the way Auden said it had hurt Yeats into poetry....Literature-O'Brien's most faithful companion, her deepest faith-brings what consolation it can. She returns the favor by adding her extravagant lyricism to its trove."- Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times

"A wonderful, lively memoir."- Katie Roiphe,

"Edna O'Brien, for whom the word 'redoubtable' may well have been coined, has lived a long and quite remarkable life...Anyone who knows and loves her work, as I do, will want to read Country Girl from start to finish."- Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

"We follow O'Brien through convent school, love affairs, motherhood, the banning of her books, and her working years in London and New York. Along the way, we encounter Günter Gras, Joseph Brodsky, Jackie Onassis, and other luminaries. O'Brien beautifully renders her remarkably rich life, her 'many me's.'"-The New Yorker

"This is a big, robust life, and though one might come for the literary gossip, the lucid prose and sharp insight command one's attention. It's with good reason that this memoir has been placed on so many lists of best books of 2013...We're in the thrall of one of the most beguiling and resilient contemporary writers, a stylist and a survivor...through it all, she's an exuberant literary pioneer." - Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune (Editor's Choice)

Library Journal
O'Brien's (A Fanatic Heart) memoir chronicles her journey from the Catholic restraints of her childhood in Ireland to her success as a prolific writer. In 1960, O'Brien shocked Ireland with her debut novel, The Country Girls, a sexually outspoken story about young women in love whose needs often conflict with those of their male counterparts. This led to strong disapproval from the Irish Catholic community. Yet her writing found an appreciative audience in the wider world. She lived the Swinging Sixties life in London, taking LSD and hanging out with such celebrities as Paul McCartney, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery, furthering her reputation as a wild, unconventional woman. VERDICT While O'Brien overly devotes her time to cataloguing the notable actors, writers, and politicians of her acquaintance, the accounts of her childhood and her descriptions of Ireland soar with a lyricism reminiscent of Joyce. Recommended for memoir lovers and readers with a desire for more insight into this important 20th-century literary figure.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Kirkus Reviews
The octogenarian Irish novelist, playwright, poet, biographer (and more) revisits her rich and sometimes rowdy life. The best sections of this episodic memoir are the first and final quarters of the text. In the first, O'Brien (Saints and Sinners, 2011, etc.) writes affectingly of her girlhood--her memories of being attacked by an ill-tempered dog, of playing with dolls in her dining room, and of discovering and nurturing her interest in literature and writing. "The words ran away with me," she writes. She worked in a pharmacy in Dublin but soon fled when the seductions of sex and literature and celebrity whispered that she could have a very different life than the one she was experiencing. Her account of her marriage to writer Ernest Gébler is grim and often depressing (understatement: he was not happy about her literary success), but she eventually left him, battled for custody of her children (she eventually won) and soared off into celebrity, a state that consumes the middle--and weakest--sections of the book. She seems determined to list every famous person she encountered, and the roster seems endless--John Osborne, Robert Mitchum, Paul McCartney, R.D. Laing (who became her therapist), Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal (she stayed at his Italian villa), Arthur Schlesinger and Norman Mailer. On and on go the names, a virtual phone book of the famous. These sections are mere molecules on the surface of some much deeper issues that she neglects. In the final quarter, O'Brien returns to some effective ruminations about finding a place that's "home" and about feeling mortal--even old (an encounter with Jude Law is poignant). Near the end, she revisits her abandoned girlhood home, drifting through it and remembering. Emotion and reflection contend for prominence with superficiality; the former win, but barely.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Edna O'Brien learned quite early on that writing books can be a dangerous business. She wrote her first novel, The Country Girls, in three weeks. When it was published, in 1960, she was thirty and a sensation in literary London: its success launched her on a long career that spans over twenty books. But with fame came instant notoriety, too. The Country Girls was considered so risqué in her native Ireland that it was banned for a time. People in her hometown even made a show of burning it. The detractors included the head of her old convent school ("We give credence an open mind"), her then-husband ("You can write and I will never forgive you"), and even her own mother, who resented the looks she got from neighbors. Ever after, O'Brien was seen in some quarters as, in her terms, "a Jezebel."

That episode perhaps explains why she describes this book in the preface as "the memoir which I swore I would never write." It is a remark she does not otherwise explain. Without further context, you might want to call that a very old form of snobbery against the art of talking about oneself — or most memoirists will, anyway, and they are a sensitive bunch of late. Something more complicated is at work here. O'Brien is not afraid of putting herself in her work. She once told The Paris Review that "any book that is any good must be, to some extent, autobiographical, because one cannot and should not fabricate emotions; and although style and narrative are crucial, the bulwark, emotion, is what finally matters."

So you could say, then, that Country Girl is bulwarked by a certain amount of reluctance. You can see that most closely in the form of the book. Its artfulness suggests that O'Brien is still reserving judgment on the propriety of disclosing her personal life. That said, the narrator does not come across as coy or evasive. It's more a matter of structure. Everything is related in brief vignettes and anecdotes, the author preferring lyricism and metaphor to exhaustive detail. And while O'Brien moves her story through time in a broadly linear fashion, the chronology forks with regularity enough that an inattentive reader might get lost. It is a bit like being guided through a forest by someone who does not want you to remember the way out yourself.

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."

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, andThe Awl.

Reviewer: Michelle Dean

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316122719
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 108,509
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edna O'Brien, author of The Country Girls Trilogy, A Fanatic Heart, The Light of Evening, Saints and Sinners, and many other books, is the recipient of the James Joyce Ulysses Medal and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2013

    Great book.

    Great book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    skip it

    Kind of dull...didn't make me care about her life at all...too choppy

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  • Posted August 6, 2013

    Giving it 5 stars to counteract the people who literally judge a

    Giving it 5 stars to counteract the people who literally judge a book by its cover, and give it one star without having read it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 21, 2013

    I find the cover so distasteful I couldn't even think about read

    I find the cover so distasteful I couldn't even think about reading the book. At the same time I feel the cover probably says a lot about the content of the book, so I feel that I wouldn't like it anyway.

    0 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2013


    this is a good example... DONT SMOKE CRACK!!!

    0 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 14, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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