I enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement, and did not hesitate to pick up this volume, which concentrates on family members in an Irish Catholic clan.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (400 pages, Knopf, $25.95) is a wonderful novel about family life and the tension between generations in a family where the love is so strong it almost destroys them.
The novel describes a Massachusetts family from the perspective of their summer house in Maine. Alice Kelleher, the widowed matriarch, is an angry and guilty woman who drowns her sorrows in alcohol every day, missing her husband and wishing that her daughters would treat her with more kindness. When the reader witnesses her treatment of them—the kinds of bitter and biting things she says to them (about their weight, their children, the mismanagement of their lives)—it’s really a surprise that any of them are speaking to her.
Daniel Kelleher, her husband, had been a very kindly man, and everyone in the family misses him; but no one misses him more than Kathleen, the oldest daughter, who fled to California after his death (with money he left her) and established a worm-compost farm in Sonoma County, California. Her partner in crime was an ex-hippie called Arlo, with whom she has lived a decade of sober (literally) and profitable honest living.
Clare, the second daughter, lives close to Alice in Massachusetts, but avoids her as much as possible. We hear about her primarily indirectly. Her husband and Alice do not get along, and her children, fascinating in their ways, play only a minor role in the family drama.
Much more involved are Pat, Alice and Daniel’s only son, and his wife Ann Marie. Ann Marie is a Southie, and she felt that marrying Pat was a great opportunity. He clearly loves her, but everyone else in the family treats her like an interloper.
Ann Marie is one of the women from whose perspective the story is told. The others are Alice (of course), Kathleen, and Maggie, Kathleen’s 32-year-old daughter.
Maggie is in a state of crisis from the opening of the novel. Her boyfriend Gabe is utterly unsatisfactory, but just as the novel opens she has discovered that she is pregnant and is trying to tell Gabe about this. He is so disagreeable that she cannot say anything, and she finds his breaking up with her is both an advantage and a liability. She goes to Maine as a way of working out her thinking about all of this.
Another player is a kindly young local Catholic priest in Maine, to whom Alice has become close. In a fit of devotion to him, recognizing in her heart how important the church has been to her throughout her life, but especially since her husband died, she alters her will to leave the Maine property to the local church. The priest is grateful, but he assumes that she has consulted her family. She hasn’t, and when various members find out, there is a great deal of family strife to deal with.
These two main threads—Maggie’s pregnancy and Alice’s will—create enough drama for any family; and in this hard-drinking and articulately spiteful group of relations, there is no limit to what is said, or screamed, in reaction to life's eccentricities.
Sullivan is great at creating this family and the tension that hold them together even as it nearly drives them apart. She gets inside each of the characters she explores, with the result that the reader can actually understand what these tensions are and why they matter.
Maine is important to the narrative as well, and it feels like one of the main characters at times. Sullivan’s sense of place gives this novel a solidity that the personalities alone would not give it.
I hope it is clear that I think this is a wonderful novel.
J Courtney Sullivan
Maine is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.