A Rose In The Heart Of New York by Edna O’Brien, 1978
The magic trick:
Compressing the result of years of love and hurt and resentment left unsaid into one scene
It’s interesting to read “A Rose In The Heart” after yesterday’s Edna feature, “Sister Imelda.” You quickly see similarities between the stories’ respective protagonists. “Rose,” published three years before “Imelda” gives a long-range, third-person account of a woman’s relationship to her mother from her birth to her mother’s death. “Imelda” zeroes in on the teenaged years and highlights the daughter’s relationship to a nun at her school. So it’s cool to see how all the pieces fit together before and after.
Of the two, I definitely prefer “Sister Imelda.” As interesting as the context is, taken on its own I feel like “Rose” could do without its entire first half. The crucial scene comes toward the end when the daughter has taken her mother for a vacation. Emotions bubble over and previously hidden frustrations get verbalized. It does not end well.
So did that scene land because I had 15 pages of backstory detailing how close the mother and daughter were decades ago? Maybe. But I think it has more to do the quality of the scene itself. Every word is pure. The words mother and daughter exchange are at times very dramatic, but they always feel right. It’s very Alice Munro in that respect. The daughter thinks kind thoughts and says means words. Everything here feels like perfect truth. I actually think the scene could stand alone as a story. It’s that strong. And that’s quite a trick on O’Brien’s part.
She wished then that her mother’s life had been happier and had not exacted so much from her, and she felt she was being milked emotionally. With all her heart she pitied this woman, pitied her for having her dreams pulped and for betrothing herself to a life of suffering. But also she blamed her. They were both wild with emotion. They were speaking out of turn and eating carelessly; the very food seemed to taunt them. The mother wished that one of those white-coated waiters would tactfully take her place of dinner away and replace it with a nice warm pot of tea, or better still, that she could be home in her own house by her own fireside, and furthermore she wished that her daughter had never grown into the cruel feelingless hussy that she was.
“What else could I have done?” the mother said.
“A lot,” the girl said, and gulped at once.
The mother excused herself.
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