Reading Lessons

Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy

Utterly foreign and completely familiar

By Martha McPhee | June 15, 2015


It is impossible for me, almost, to choose one favorite book. My favorite is whatever I am loving in a moment: Gone With The Wind, at 16, desperately wanting to be Scarlett O’Hara; Anna Karenina, on a train backpacking across Europe with my best friend. We only had one copy and so I, ahead, tore the pages off in chunks so she could read too. At 26, the book was Middlemarch, which I reread more than any other to learn from Dorothea’s mistakes.

Right now, as I devour her quartet set in Naples, my favorite writer is Elena Ferrante. Her brutal and honest depiction of female friendship and the experience of being a woman, a mother, and a writer struggling to express her existence is riveting. Reading Ferrante, I am continuously reminded how I feel and that I don’t need to be afraid to say it.

Following this thread of favorite books I am led back to the one that looms over my entire experience as a reader: Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy—not because it made me want to be a writer (it did) or because it made me want to read everything its author had written (it also did) or because it turned me into an avid reader hunting to find stories that moved me as this one had. Rather, encountering the story of Kate and Baba from rural Ireland, headed to Dublin to become themselves, made me realize, at 20, the power and urgency of a girl’s story. A poor Irish Catholic girl and her best friend explained for me what I thought and felt—not unlike Ferrante’s characters have. It didn’t matter that they lived across an ocean in a different country and time, that they were smarter and mouthier, that they were at first younger and then much older, poorer, richer. They were at once utterly foreign and completely familiar, always making me feel and see and know. This, I learned from O’Brien, is why I read.

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