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The Lonely Voice: 'The Love Object' by Edna O’Brien

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Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien doesn’t shy away from controversy. Her storied dust-ups with critics of her works of memoir and fiction have never deterred her from the truths she continues to tell about herself and others who represent her particular brand of unvarnished truth-telling. In writing stories about the vagaries of love, she has been as persistent

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O’Brien has said, “I am obsessed quite irrationally by the notion of love … It’s an obsession, and I know it’s very limiting. At the same time, it’s what I feel the truest and most persistently about, and therefore it’s the thing that I have to write about.”

And she assuredly does — write about — the obsession that can coexist with an ideal of love.

In the story “The Love Object,” the protagonist, Martha, seems conscious of this conflated idea of obsession and love. Even the title of the story conveys this awareness that we can treat the object of our affection as an object to be possessed. Things are further complicated when we see that the nature of Martha’s relationship with a married man is less about “love” and more about a sexual relationship she is consumed by and that they manage when the man’s wife and child are out of the country or when they can stay in her apartment. There is nothing much to element their union except the sex. Neither is forthcoming about their lives, or even a sharing of their interior lives as part of their intimacy. Martha’s obsession grows in dangerous ways. We see her move through a painful process of coming to desperation and then a hard-won discovery that helps us understand that her clinging to the obsession was driven perhaps by a feeling that it’s better than not having anything else more meaningful from her paramour.

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Peter Orner

In his essay “Cheever in Albania,” Peter Orner describes a visit to Tirana, Albania, to work on a story set in this place. At a coffee shop, he observes two people animatedly discussing something. He does not speak the language, but their eyes and expressions spill the beans about what Orner surmises must be an illicit affair. “I could have this all wrong,” writes Orner. “They could be talking about shampoo. Still, I’d bet the house I will never own that this has something to do with a juicy bit of local scandal.” The woman goes on talking for some time. Her “eyes are becoming wet with heightened anxiety … We’re on the verge of revelation.” Orner continues, “But the thrill, the ecstasy, is never the story alone but how the telling is wrapped.”

That’s what we see in Edna O’Brien’s “The Love Object.” How the story comes to us from this master of the form is what brings us back to the story again and again. It is not the juicy details of a lurid affair that does it. It is that telling of the anatomy of an obsession, it’s sad trajectory toward an inevitable uncoupling. And that’s the point then, that’s how the story helps us understand in yet another way that every story is about loss—for the faithful and the not so. In the cold glaring unromantic light, we are all what Peter Orner calls “the lonelies” reaching out for connection” because “nothing” as O’Brien writes “is a dreadful thing to hold on to.”

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.