Devoted Ladies

A few years ago, I read Good Behavior by Molly Keane, and it was a novel that I admired more than liked. It had a pleasingly dark plot and well-developed characters, but I felt I was being kept at a distance from it all. With this much earlier book, which Keane published under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell in 1934, I feel similarly, except I’m not sure that I even admire it that much.

As the novel begins, we meet Jessica and Jane, two lesbians who have been together for six months. Jessica is cruel, violent, and abusive to Jane, and, although Jane is devoted to Jessica, she’s also ready to leave. She’s done. Still, she’s too frightened to do anything until she meets an Irishman named George at a party and feels she has her answer. When she’s sick with alcohol poisoning, George sends her a package of divertingly silly books set in Ireland. Jessica treats the gift with scorn and sees the books as beneath them both, but as Jane and her nurse start sneaking around behind Jessica’s back to read them, Jane becomes certain that she’ll find a way out with George in Ireland. She enlists Sylvester, part of her and Jessica’s social set, to help.

Soon after this, Sylvester is visiting his cousins, Piggy and Hester, in Ireland when Jessica and Jane turn up. Jane has been injured in a car accident, and they will have to stay there for at least a month. Piggy is a devoted friend to George’s sister, Joan, who mostly treats Piggy with scorn. And so, Jane is able to make inroads into George’s life and seems to genuinely come to love him. All the while, however, there’s Jessica’s possible reaction hanging over the relationship, as well as Piggy’s own affection for George.

Almost all of the characters in this book are either mean-spirited or pathetic, and sometimes both. Jessica is, of course, the most overly mean, but Joan undermines everything about Piggy whenever she can, and Piggy has internalized the meanness and looks down on herself. Other characters, like Sylvester, just enjoy making cutting barbs. None of this is enough to turn me off a book entirely, but it the case of this one, the nastiness was just so unrelenting and one-note that it became boring. It’s only in the last several pages that the story takes a turn that I found genuinely surprising. And, at that point, I realized that Keane was laying the groundwork for a big climax all along. But the journey to get there just wasn’t worth it to me. I could see the skill, but I didn’t care. And that’s fatal.

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