Review: Maine — J. Courtney Sullivan

Read: 63
To Go: 37

Book List:
61. The Very Thought of You — Rosie Alison
62. Possession — A.S. Byatt
63. Maine — J. Courtney Sullivan

For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. As three generations of women arrive at the family’s beach house, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.

I bought Maine while I was in the San Francisco airport last month — if I’d passed up the reduced book prices in the States, I’d never forgive myself — and anticipated a light, beachy read. I did not get it. Maine is not a light, vacationy book, but it is a good one.

This seems like an odd way to start, but if anything, Maine made me appreciate my family more than I normally do. I’m glad I’m related to a large group of supportive, caring people who love each other, unlike the Kellehers, who bicker and snap at each other like it’s their job.

Aside from that, I loved Maine and I loved the characters. None of the four characters were perfect, or even close to fully likeable, but their faults were what made them so much more human and sympathetic. I spent most of the book hating Alice, but feeling bad because her situation, and her discontent, were a product of the generation she came from, and the guilt she’d carried her whole life; Ann Marie was stuffy and pretentious, but she had moments of heartbreaking kindness and goodwill; I appreciated Kathleen’s effort to make herself a better person, but could have wrung her neck for being a deliberate shit-starter with her mother and sister-in-law; and I admired Maggie’s strength, but wished she could just wrap her head around how bad her boyfriend was for her.

Alice, specifically, was a work of art. She was mean and petty and vain, and based solely on that, no reader had any reason to like her. But seeing her forced into motherhood — something she clearly had no interest in or penchant for — instead of getting to pursue her passions, because of the time period she was born into, was saddening. Her bitterness seemed like a product of bad luck, and I couldn’t help pitying her. She appreciated her alone time, and the smallness her life had taken on, more than being surrounded by her family at the cottage, and part of me understood that. But it didn’t mean that I didn’t want to smack her in the face a couple of times.

For a book that detailed the failings of one miserable clan, the end message still resonated — you may not be able to choose your family, but in the end they’re the ones you can always turn to.

And on a final note, I spent half the book howling with laughter. As sad as it was at times, J. Courtney Sullivan sure knows how to bring the humour. I’m leaving off with my favourite passage:

[Father Donnelly] bit into his lobster roll, leaving a speck of mayo on his bottom lip. To Maggie’s great amazement, Alice reached over and wiped it off.

‘Thanks,’ he said.

Maggie wished she could stop time then and there, just to be able to call her mother and report on this immediately.” (Sullivan 330)

Next book: I’m going to try to find Brokeback Mountain and Winnie the Pooh online so that I can knock out two short Stylist novels without having to buy them. If anyone has any leads on either, let me know!

– Kelsey

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