A novel of powerful, complicated emotions and rapturous writing suffers from its plot’s soap-opera sentimentality.
O’Brien (Wild Decembers, 2000, etc.) shows how much of herself she has invested in this material in the book’s dedication: “For My Mother and My Motherland.” Languishing on her deathbed from a disease she has done her best to deny, Delia “Dilly” Macready comes to terms with her life in general and her relationship with her daughter in particular. That daughter, Eleanora, is a novelist who long ago departed her native Ireland for London, where she has become successful and notorious by writing books that scandalize those she left behind, blurring the lines between life and art, memory and invention. Thus the novel encourages the reader to identify Eleanora with the London-based author, whose work has generated controversy in her homeland (and who drops the third-person references to the “E” character for the first-person “I” in the novel’s final stages). Yet the story belongs to Dilly, and only she comes fully alive within these pages. The richest section recounts Dilly’s young adulthood in America, after she had left her mother for the promise of a new world, only to find that her nationality and inexperience have consigned her to maid’s work. It is there that she meets the man she will love for the rest of her life, though circumstances and miscommunication have her return home and marry a dutiful Irishman. Her two children are even less lucky in love, as Eleanora, whose true passion is literature, marries and divorces an older, domineering man with no redeeming qualities (leaving the reader to wonder what she ever saw in him), and her henpecked brother and shrewish wife scheme to inherit Dilly’s once prosperous property.
Through the twists of blood ties, O’Brien explores the profound ambivalence of the mother-daughter relationship, but the land and the climate seem more fully developed as characters than do many of the one-dimensional humans.