This second novel by Donoghue (Stir-fry, 1994) offers an elegiac reconstruction of a long love affair and a fascinating portrait of lesbian society in modern Ireland. Bright, self-assured, dependable Pen O'Grady first meets neurotic, alluring, exasperating Cara while both are in convent school. The two quickly become fast friends and, more gradually, lovers. Donoghue offers a wry, sharply observed portrait of the manner in which the adolescent Pen and Cara come to terms with their sexuality, the mingled fear and exuberance of their discovery, the conflicting pressures to hide and proclaim their love. Their physical passion (``a blur of bliss across the brain'') turns out to be the simplest part of the relationship. Cara, restless, romantic, scornful of the more mundane elements of life (Living, Pen says, ``seemed to be more of a battle for Cara than anyone I knew'') seems driven to wander: She repeatedly breaks off the affair, pursues (sometimes disastrously) other women, yet always eventually returns to the tart but forgiving Pen. She is returning yet again, after a brief fling, when she dies in an accident. The novel is essentially a monologue as, from the perspective of the week in which her lover is buried, Pen, alternately angry or despairing, looks back over their 14-year relationship, reconstructing it, attempting to make some sense of their lives together. Pen ruefully admits that she has always been ``solid,'' dependable, even predictable. But Donoghue does a deft job of catching Pen's wry intelligence and intense romanticism, the deep certainty she has in her identity. She is less successful with Cara, who remains a somewhat enigmatic figure: It's uncertain whether Cara is merely intensely self-absorbed or a generous, tormented figure. Fortunately, though, it's Pen who dominates this spare, powerful narrative. Her unsparing record of a difficult, intense, vital affair, and her meditations on the nature of desire, are exact and profoundly moving.
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