Maine isn't a pushover; the state has character and gumption. That's why I love it. J. Courtney Sullivan evidently does, too, for she's located her new novel in Cape Neddick, near Ogunquit, where the Kelleher family has owned a piece of land (won on a bet) since 1945. Here the 83-year-old matriarch, Alice, spends summers, irritably and sometimes competitively baby-sat by one branch or another of her fractious brood.
"Sullivan has come up with an interesting hybrid --- a traditional family saga inflected by 21st-century feminism and warmed by obvious fondness for her characters...."
Alice is the first of four narrators in MAINE, and easily the most vivid and acerbic. Early in the book, Sullivan sets up two related events that will animate the plot. In 1942, Alice's sister, Mary, died in the notorious Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, and Alice feels responsible (we don't learn why until later). Her husband, Daniel, having died 10 years ago, she decides, as penance, to will the property to the strapped local Catholic church --- without saying a word to her children or grandchildren.
Enter Maggie, Alice's granddaughter. At 32, she's published a book of short stories and has a novel in the works (I guess this must seem entirely credible to the youthful Sullivan, whose own debut novel, COMMENCEMENT, was a bestseller). Also in the works is a baby, conceived accidentally-on-purpose with a handsome no-good named Gabe.
Cut to Maggie's mother, Kathleen, a former alcoholic and forever rebel who is now happily shacked up on a Sonoma worm farm (don't ask) with her man, the aptly named Arlo. One of Sullivan's clever moves in this book is to have us hear about a character indirectly, from someone who dislikes her intensely (Kathleen was Daniel's pet and is Alice's least favorite child). Thus, when Kathleen does erupt into the novel, one is shocked by her likability. She is smart, real and refreshing, even if her house is an utter mess.
That could never be said of Alice's daughter-in-law, Ann Marie, who is about as meticulous a homemaker as you can imagine. Her hobby: dollhouses. Her objective: "to create a life with order and beauty to it" (her hardscrabble childhood possessed neither quality). An unhappy Good Girl, she's surely going to blow before the story ends.
These women are strong yet somehow thwarted, and often flanked by charming, devil-may-care men --- which is to say that Irishness is as inherent to MAINE as green is to shamrocks. Alcoholism is ever-present: Almost everybody seems either to have a drinking problem or to be recovering from one ("It was quite possible," Alice muses, "that she had made it through her first decade of motherhood without killing them all thanks only to Canadian Club"). And as for Catholicism, Alice lives for Mass, which she attends daily; Kathleen hates the church but considers herself "spiritual"; and Maggie says of herself, "She wasn't religious in a formal way, but she still felt Catholicism coming through her pores so many years later. She still wanted terribly to be good, even if no one was watching."
Sullivan isn't merely reconfiguring an oft-told tale; she gives the Kelleher family authenticity and substance (perhaps some of this material is autobiographical?). The women's voices are distinct and faithful to their respective eras: Alice saying and for example, or talking offhandedly about smoking and drinking during pregnancy (Maggie, in contrast, switches immediately to herbal tea).
Less successful, to my mind, is the pace of the book --- there's too big a windup and not enough of a pitch. After pages and pages in which the women trade narrative duties, filling us in on family history but doing nothing very momentous in the present, there is suddenly a whoosh of eventfulness. The quartet finds itself at Cape Neddick at the same time (normally, the family divides up the summer into a sort of time-sharing arrangement), and, not surprisingly, there are angry scenes, unpleasant revelations, old wounds smarting and new feuds unfolding.
But instead of sustaining this energy, Sullivan cops out a bit at the end. Following the big blow-up, all the rough edges seem to get smoothed out. What could have been a more ambiguous and troubling book is tied up like a hostess gift. Although it has considerable wit and a great deal of well-crafted detail, it lacks shape; its good bones stay submerged. Sullivan is a talented enough writer to produce leaner, more complex work. MAINE, in my opinion, is not quite flinty enough for the Granite State.
Still, these disappointments are relative. For one thing, we get attached enough to the four narrators that we don't want them to crash and burn. For another, I'm not sure we necessarily crave gritty, challenging books when we're lying on the sand or curling up in our equivalent of the Kellehers' cottage. If MAINE isn't a complete success, it does afford plenty of intelligent entertainment. Sullivan has come up with an interesting hybrid --- a traditional family saga inflected by 21st-century feminism and warmed by obvious fondness for her characters, even the monstrous, manipulative and curiously poignant Alice.
At nearly 400 pages, it is worth the weight it will add to your beach bag.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on June 14, 2011