Review: Mary Lavelle, by Kate O’Brien

Mary Lavelle is a young, naive Irish woman who leaves her home and her fiancé John to work as a governess in Spain.  At 22, she felt a strong need for independence:

To go to Spain. To be alone for a little space, a tiny hiatus between her life’s two accepted phases.  To cease being a daughter without immediately becoming a wife.  To be a free lance, to belong to no one place or family or person — to achieve that silly longing of childhood, only for one year, before she flung it with all other childish things upon the scrapheap. (p. 34)

And so she arrives in the Pyrenees, and the Areavaga family home, to serve as a “Miss” (as they are called by the locals).  Mary’s primary responsibility is teaching English to the three daughters.  This must have been a common arrangement in the 1920s, because Mary soon encounters a group of women in a local pub, all serving other families.  Some have made a career of it, either because they enjoy the independence or because their marriage prospects back home are slim and they cannot afford to be a burden on their family.  Mary both enjoys and is bewildered by these women: their lifestyle, their way of conversing with one another, and their relative isolation, since most have never bothered to learn Spanish.

I expected Mary to be the typical “naive girl abroad,” and she does indeed spend a fair amount of time taking in the sights and declaring her love for Spain.  Early on, she attends a bullfight with another Miss, despite her strong views against the sport.  She is, not surprisingly, horrified but also captivated by the tradition.  The locals are equally captivated by Mary, who apparently is the most beautiful woman anyone in the region has ever seen.

Enter Juanito: oldest child and only son of Don Pablo Areavaga.  A few years older than Mary, he is married with a young child.  But after exchanging a long glance with Mary on the stairway, the two completely fall for each other.  While Mary knows Juanito is off limits, she begins to question her feelings for John.  Juanito finds excuses to visit his parents in order to see Mary.

Well, you know where this is going.  If this story were set in modern times, the reader would be treated to a sordid affair followed by divorce, and the couple would live happily ever after.  But divorce was forbidden by the Catholic church, so the love between Mary and Juanito was not to be.  Or so I thought.  Mary and Juanito both spend too much time mooning about but then suddenly, Mary turns out to be the stronger of the two.  She takes the bull by the horns, so to speak, and makes life-changing decisions regarding Juanito.

Mary’s strength and decisiveness saved this book for me.  I had a difficult time understanding the so-called “love” between Mary and Juanito.  The two could barely communicate with one another, appeared to have no shared interests, and yet felt they were meant to share a life together.  Both Mary and Juanito were a little too one-dimensional for me; O’Brien did a better job developing the ancillary characters, like Don Pablo and other governesses, than she did her protagonists.  This was an average read, and not O’Brien’s best work.

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