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Email Margaret

REVIEWING

Maine

by J. Courtney Sullivan


Knopf | 2011 | $25.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


j courtney sullivan

One More Book for a Summer Read

Ahhh, summer reading… Although time is ticking away and the crunch of leaves is near, you can still think it’s summer and indeed, technically it still is.  You don’t have to be too serious or showoff-ish for summer reading.  It’s a time to exchange Proust for mysteries, true crime, or my favorite indulgence, “chick-lit,” although I never really known what qualifies for this category.  If a book has well-crafted paragraphs, does it get disqualified from “chick-lit”?

In this case, Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan, would be disqualified because there’s lots of good writing in this fresh, funny novel.  Sullivan knows her subject—Maine—and adroitly describes the beaches, cottages, and lobster restaurants.  But most important to the book is the family compound, where three generations of Kelleher’s, an Irish-Catholic clan, gather each summer.

The novel is told from the perspective of four women in the family: Alice, the “larger-than-life,” sometimes brittle, yet endearing matriarch; Kathleen, her rebellious daughter who lives a “hippie-dippy” life (according to her mother) on a worm farm in California; Maggie, a thirty-something, anal, yet loving New Yorker with a cool job and a horrid boyfriend; and Ann Marie, a Martha Stewart wanna- be with an obsession for dollhouses (also described with great wit).  As you can see, the women are created as opposites who come at each other from all sides.  The dialogue is sometimes hilarious, with the poignancy of real-life conversations that occur between mothers and daughters.  There are also tender moments, especially between Kathleen and Maggie.

The book flip-flops between the perspectives of these women, so one chapter is given to Alice and another to Maggie and so forth.  Sometimes I find this technique troublesome, but Sullivan creates a solid balancing act, giving each character her voice while not shying away from unpleasantness. It’s a testament to the book, that over a nice dinner my aunt and I discussed our favorite characters (Maggie for me, Kathleen for her) while other guests looked on bored.

“You know these people aren’t real, right?” quipped my aunt’s husband. 

“Yes,” we wailed.

Because the book is written in this somewhat confessional style (and the Catholicism of the families makes the confessional style feel especially apt), the reader is privy to the characters’ secrets—their jealousies, desires, and dreams.  Sullivan masterfully doles out the back-stories of the characters a bit at a time, making the reader hungry for more.

Alice’s story is especially intriguing.  Based on a real-life event, a fire at a club in Boston, the reader begins to understand why Alice becomes the hardened, sometimes maddening person she becomes.  When she’s a girl, she vows to leave the blue-collar world she feels trapped in and make something of herself—preferably as an artist in Paris.  This hope is dashed when a tragedy bestows her beloved sister, Mary.  Alice is terribly jealous of Mary, yet the jealousy is unfounded—Mary, the good girl, the saint, only wants what’s best for her little sister. 

When drab Mary gets whisked into the realm of the elite (she gets a little mink shawl and pretty dresses from her suave boyfriend), Alice can’t stand it and acts with bitter vengeance toward her sister.  The ensuing tragedy results in Alice giving up her artistic dreams (as an act of penance) and propels her to marry, have children, and lead an “ordinary life.”  But leading a so-called “ordinary life” almost kills her—she becomes melancholy, claustrophobic, and tries to quell the pain by binge drinking.  I want to applaud Sullivan for doing her homework.  The scene of the fire was realistic and well researched.

So everything was going along well with my reading experience.  I wasn’t devouring the book, but everywhere I went the book accompanied me, poised for reading in my beach bag along with our suits.  There were enough plot developments to keep me intrigued.  Would Maggie have an abortion?  Would Ann Marie have an affair with a friend of her husband’s?  And the most interesting plot line of all:  what would happen to the summer compound itself?  Unbeknownst to her children and grandchildren, Alice, who is just beginning to show the first signs of senility, has told the young priest she flirts with that she’s changing her will to leave all her Maine property to the church.  When her children find out, they are livid.  In one juicy scene, the pert, perfect daughter-in-law Ann Marie stomps on Alice’s tomato plants and turns them to a pulpy mess outside the cottage.  This cinematic moment got me hooked.

But then I came across an error in the book. I thought there were too many editors to let such a discrepancy occur.  It involved a letter that Maggie was going to write to her mother.  In the book she considers writing an e-mail, but then decides to write a letter instead, because the news was too important for an e-mail.  A bit later the mother talks about getting the news in an e-mail.  This may not seem like a big mistake and it wouldn’t have been if the author hadn’t made such a point of choosing a letter over an e-mail for her character.  I have to say that after this, my faith in the book and in the writer slipped.  I thought of writing to the publishers at once, but instead went to my aunt’s.  “Did you see the mistake?”

“Yes. In the letter?”

I continued to read the book, but half-heartedly.  It was hard to “lose myself” when I no longer trusted the author completely. I also found the ending very anti-climatic.  Perhaps I was ready for a showdown between Alice and her children and grandchildren, but the book just seemed to lose energy as it progressed.  It made me realize again what I always knew—it is much easier to create an opening than an ending.

The cottage in which I was staying happened to have an old copy of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets.  I dipped into that book when I wasn’t reading Maine.  Once again, this “master of the short story” floored me.  But what struck me the most was the similarity of themes between Munro and Sullivan.

Both write about the world of women.  Both speak of generational shifts and tensions.  Both talk about desire and how it clouds reason and about secrets that alter the characters’ lives.  “Chick lit.”  Yet when Munro talks about secrets there is a subtlety and mysteriousness to her writing.  Her characters seem to breathe with all the complexity of real people.  Also, like real people, her characters remain in some way unknowable.  And her endings—Alice Munro knows how to end a story.  She always seems to create one more twist, whether it be a major leap in time, or a piece of information finally revealed that makes the reader realize that all along she had been fooled.

But it doesn’t seem fair to compare Sullivan to Munro.  Sullivan is a relatively new writer; Munro is a master.  I will continue to read Sullivan’s other books.  She shows great promise and I’m drawn to her humor.  I can’t remember the last book I actually laughed out loud while reading (certainly not Alice Munro). And humor is great, maybe because if we women didn’t laugh at ourselves—at our obsessions, petty rivalries, outrageous mistakes—we would cry.  But, please, editors, no more mistakes!



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