“She said the reason that love is so painful is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.”
Edna O’Brien, Saints & Sinners (2011)
Love takes many forms in Edna O’Brien’s Saints & Sinners but disappointment is often intrinsically linked with it. It’s not all that surprising really, because love means expectations. Its basic human nature to want, what we have will never seem as promising as what we imagine, and isn’t that where the problem lies?
In the opening story of the collection, my favourite, the love presented is not the love shared between two people but rather the love between a man and his country. Rafferty has lived in London since he was a teenage boy but despite the years and physical distance, his affection for Ireland and the family he left there still remains. A man in his fifties, he drinks in an Irish pub and wears the Irish coat of arms on his lapel. The sad thing is that despite his love of his homeland, Ireland has become unrecognisable in the time spent away and as a result he feels out of place in both countries.
Maternal love, specifically the love of a mother for her daughter is also a point of contention in the collection. I think it would be unfair to say that the estrangement of the narrator in Two Mothers from her own mother is entirely due to disappointed expectations. Her mother doesn’t want more from her but more for her. It’s something all mothers want for their children. The problem develops when ‘more’ becomes a specific goal that is pushed for and as the target of this agenda, it can seem like your parent doesn’t think your good enough.
Romance plays a key role in stories such as Black Flower, Manhattan Medley and Send My Roots Rain, but it is ultimately love unfulfilled. There is the potential for deeper feelings but circumstances prevent them from coming to fruition. The young woman in Manhattan Medley has embarked upon an affair with a married celebrity and although they are insatiable, both wanting more from each other, the reality of the situation ultimately prevents it from developing further. In Send My Roots Rain, a librarian reflects on her own solitary encounter with love while waiting to meet a poet she admires. There is a sense that something may occur when he arrives but he fails to do so.
O’Brien stories elegantly transcribe the consequences, good and bad, of wanting more than you have.