"But life isn't as Lucille would order it, you stupid child! Life is as men - I say men - make and feel it!"Fanny Morrow, just eighteen, is speaking to her friend Lucille's brother André on the Ponte Navi in Verona, on an summer evening in 1906. We first meet her several months earlier, at her sister Lilian's wedding in their hometown of Dublin. Fanny, just returned from her convent school in Brussels, is considering entering the convent herself. Instead, she travels to Belgium to stay with Lucille, and then joins the de Mellin family on a visit to Italy. When they return to Belgium, Fanny is called home to a family emergency, and Lucille goes with her, to encounter Ireland for the first time.
"I've noticed already," said Fanny, "that that is men's idea. But my life is mine, and it will be more or less what I make and feel it, I hope."
Both Fanny and Lucille are searching for their path in life. They know what they want: education and a life beyond the role of decorous daughter, whether in Dublin or Brussels. Lucille's family is wealthy, so she has resources and opportunities that Fanny does not. But she also has a father who hopes to see her marry into a family with business connections to their own - a German family. Fanny's parents have refused to allow her to return to Brussels, to study for her baccalaureate. Her sister's wedding was an expense, and they expect her to take her place as the eldest daughter now. To console her for that loss, they allow her to visit Lucille, and then travel on to Italy. Neither young woman finds the answers she seeks in Italy, though they find much to delight them particularly in Venice. Instead, it is in Ireland, in the midst of great trouble, that a way is opened first for Fanny and then for Lucille.
As always with Kate O'Brien's books, I found myself reading this slowly, to savor it. There were one or two places in the first chapter where I was reading slowly because I was somewhat lost in the language. The descriptions of the inner life of Fanny's mother Julia in particular reminded me of reading Henry James, where I know the words are in English but the sense of them eludes me. But either my reading eye (ear) became acclimated or the prose became clearer, because the story then flowed easily. We see most of the events through Fanny's eyes, though the point of view sometimes switches to Lucille, and later to Fanny's Aunt Eleanor. She lives on the small family estate in the west of Ireland, which she stayed to run for her elderly father, and to care for him, after her sister married. It is still "home" to Julia, who returns there as often as she can, bringing her own children.
I have to mention two other characters who delighted me, in different ways. First is Lucille's mother, the Comtesse de Mellin, who takes the young women to Italy. She is rather scatter-brained and indolent, a bit like Lady Bertram (though much brighter). She is also a loving mother who wants her children to be happy. Personally, she finds Venice unsightly and full of disagreeable smells, but she won't deprive her children or her guest of their delight. The second is Mère Générale, Mother Cathérine Mandel of the Compagnie de la Sainte Famille. As soon as I read that Fanny had returned from her school in Place des Ormes in Brussels, I realized that this was the same school and the same order featured in O'Brien's The Land of Spices. I did hope we were going to meet Mother Mary Helen from that book again, but no. Instead, we get Mother Cathérine, whom we know only by letter and memory in the earlier book. Here she is a wise counselor and friend, and a woman of faith, like Aunt Eleanor (who with Fanny's mother also studied at Place des Ormes). Though Mother Cathérine and Aunt Eleanor want to help these young women find their way, they know they cannot fight the battles for them.
In the end, a door has opened for both young women, but we leave them on the threshold. I very much want to know what happens next. I have been plotting out different stories for them ever since I finished reading, while wondering if I might meet them again in one of Kate O'Brien's other books. I have several still to read, and others that I read so long ago I've forgotten them (particularly The Last of Summer and The Ante-Room). I do think that Kate O'Brien is a marvelous writer. It's a shame that so many of her books are out of print and hard to find, despite the Virago reprints in the 1980s.
N.B. I feel I should have noted that this book was published in 1953.