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Maeve Brennan, The Springs Of Affection

Usually I find it hard to review short story collections, which are often disjointed assemblies of unrelated stories, with no overlapping characters or settings or even themes. But The Springs of Affection in an exception, as editor William Maxwell collected stories from throughout Maeve Brennan's career which are all set in Dublin. And the stories fit into three neat groups: the first is autobiographical pieces based on Brennan's youth; the second involves the married couple Rose and Hubert Derdon; and the third involves the married couple Delia and Martin Bagot.

The autobiographical stories are amusing but fairly inconsequential, and mostly useful as a glimpse at Brennan's upbringing. The Derdon stories are substantial but almost unbearably bleak, as Rose "grieves" for her son John, not because he died but because he left the family home to join the priesthood. It's a general cliche that every traditional Irish Catholic family longs for their son to become a priest, but that's not the case with Rose; she feels abandoned by John. She spent the first two decades of her marriage being devoted entirely to doting on John, but now that he's gone she has nothing left. Nothing, not even Hubert - although they still live together, she neglected their relationship as she obsessed over John for all those years, and now they have drifted far apart and have a marriage in name only. The Derdon stories are bitter and often difficult to read.

The Bagot stories also involve an unhappy marriage and a helicoptering mother, but take place earlier in life, when the Bagot children are still young and Delia Bagot realizes that you can't live exclusively for your kids and instead you must have your own life. Not that the kids should be neglected - just that there should be a balance, especially when looking ahead to when the kids have grown up and moved on to lives of their own. Showing the family at a younger stage, and Delia's realization, makes the Bagot stories somewhat more hopeful than the Derdon stories. But the Bagots will still be challenged as a couple - Martin leads a very independent life, sleeping in a separate bedroom and keeping his own hours - but at least there's a glimmer of possibility that Delia will make a meaningful life of her own and won't look back later with the same bitterness as Rose Derdon.

What really sets the Bagot stories apart is the long concluding story, the almost-novella “The Springs of Affection", which is told from the perspective of Martin's spinster sister Min, decades later, after Martin and Delia have passed away. Delia is a veritable ray of sunshine compared to Min, who never forgave Martin for marrying Delia and breaking up (in her view) the tight circle of Martin, Min, the two other Bagot sisters and their mother. (Martin married first, followed by the two sisters, leaving Min alone with her mother, and later to herself.) We never really see what kind of life Delia had after her kids grew up, but even if she felt as bitter and abandoned as Rose Derdon, and even if she never really reconciled with Martin, she still had a far happier life than Min Bagot ever had.

April 24, 2018 in Books | Permalink