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Late last fall, when I was a little burned out on work and pandemic schooling, I took my dog and reserved a long weekend at a cottage along the shore in Downeast Maine. Beyond Kennebunkport, Portland, Freeport, and the other coastal towns in southern and mid-coast Maine, I encountered fascinating coastal villages, where summer people and transplants from New York and Boston enjoyed picturesque views and relatively inexpensive real estate, alongside families who have lived in Maine for generations and still earn their living on the water. Cute boutiques, artisanal coffee shops, and farm-(and boat)-to-table restaurants were set in view of working harbors.

I was reminded of this study in contrasts when I picked up Susan Conley’s new novel, LANDSLIDE. Conley, who has spent her life in Maine, certainly understands its dynamics better than I possibly could hope to do in any number of short weekend visits. Nevertheless, the tensions she describes in the lives of longtime Mainers on the verge of change certainly seemed to resonate with my novice observations.

"...a loving portrait of a flawed family trying their best to muddle through, both individually and together."

At the center of the book is Jill, who --- after a brief foray to Europe in her youth --- returned to fictional Sewall, Maine, to marry her longtime love, Kit Archer. Now the two are middle-aged parents to two teenaged sons. Jill knew what she was signing up for when she agreed to return to Kit, who comes from a family of fishermen and for whom fishing is the only life he’s ever known. Kit and Jill are both well aware of the isolation and separation that are part of being married to a fisherman, as well as the danger of the profession. But when Kit --- in the midst of the longest trip he has had thus far --- is seriously injured while on a fishing trip off the coast of Nova Scotia, Jill is thrown into a series of ever-escalating crises.

Jill, who grew up working-class but was raised in the mill town of Harwich, understands the fishing life, but it hasn’t permeated her like it has Kit and his family. She struggles with those periods of isolation, especially after she travels to Nova Scotia to visit Kit in the hospital and begins to suspect he’s been having an affair with a woman from there. Jill, who creates well-regarded (but not particularly well-funded) documentary films about working-class Mainers whose lives and livelihoods are changing, has a tendency to observe but not take action, a characteristic that comes to a head regarding not only her suspicions about Kit but also her concerns about her sons.

Her older son, Charlie, is a good kid, but he wants space and privacy (both of which are scarce commodities in their small island home) to spend time with his first serious girlfriend, throwing Jill into a crisis about how “sex-positive” she should be around him. More concerning is younger son Sam, who has been fragile and volatile since the accidental death of his best friend. He is skipping school, using drugs, and talking about dropping out to tour with his band in Vermont. Jill is sure that if Kit were home, things with their children would be easier. However, given her complicated feelings about their marriage, it doesn’t seem that easy after all.

These family crises play out against the backdrop of a community, and a way of life, on the verge of uncomfortable change. The family’s economic woes are mirrored by those of their neighbors, and of the gradual decline of the industry that has sustained this region for generations. LANDSLIDE offers no real solutions --- either for these larger systemic issues or for the Archer family’s woes --- but Conley does offer a fond and thoughtful exploration of the questions, and a loving portrait of a flawed family trying their best to muddle through, both individually and together.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 26, 2021

by Susan Conley

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1984898000
  • ISBN-13: 9781984898005