Still, Considine or not, you were born among us and you haven’t escaped any more than the rest of us our terrible family affection, our cowardly inability to do without each other. Why, our whole strength is simply in our instinct to be large and populous and united. (p. 244)
The Considine family is large, prosperous and very influential. Their presence in the Irish town of Mellick dates back to a horse thief who arrived in 1789. Nearly a century later, the family has left that legacy behind. Honest John, son of the horse thief, started a business dealing in hay, straw, and forage and built it into a thriving international concern. His children are grown; his four sons have found “appropriate” careers, and his four daughters are all in marriages carefully orchestrated to preserve or enhance social standing. Honest John appointed his youngest son Anthony to take over the family business, and went so far as to express a desire that his grandson Denis, then 4 years old, succeed his father Anthony when he comes of age.
I like to use little sticky page flags to mark especially well-written passages, but there were so many in this book that I stopped doing so after the first 100 pages. The entire novel was beautifully written, and very moving in so many places. Take, for example, this passage describing the love between Anthony and his wife, Molly:
Whether Molly guessed the motive of his efforts at asceticism he could not say, but he imagined that she did. Whatever she was thinking she was very tender with his lapses from monasticism. But he and she rarely spoke of these things and never with precision. She knew that he deplored for her the discomfort of incessant childbearing and would do much to lessen it, but saw no help within the social and religious code they both upheld. He knew that childbirth frightened her, wilted and crushed her and gave her in her babies only very slender compensation, for she was by nature far more wife than mother. But it was a problem which they could never thrash out, and it was heightened by the fact that they were both on the crest of life, and if not loving each other very perfectly at all times and in all the regions of love, yet doomed to find a terrible delight, again and again, each in the other’s body. (p. 76-77)
Anthony’s sister Caroline, on the other hand, is in a lackluster marriage and powerless to escape; O’Brien brings intense emotional depth to those passages as well. And then there’s brother Eddy — as a man, he freed himself from family & societal pressures by serving as the business’ London representative. In describing his London lifestyle, O’Brien alludes to Eddy’s homosexuality, and drives the point home through another sister’s endless squawking about how Eddy really should get married (even as Eddy ages into his 50s)! And finally there’s young Denis, who comes of age in Mellick feeling very ambivalent about his career with the firm. Denis prefers gardens and design, but the bond with his father is so strong, he is unable to express his wishes. This all comes to a head, of course. Denis rebels, embarrassing his family and bringing considerable pain on himself. I found the dénouement a bit too tidy, but that’s a relatively minor weakness in an otherwise wonderful book.