There’s a Maine where it never snows. There are no parking bans, no plows, no miserable sunsets at 4:30 p.m. This Maine is a reality for thousands of people: the summer folks. The Maine of their minds and memories is an oasis of sunshine and beaches and family clambakes. And though the locals who loathe them don’t want to admit it, Massholes love this state as much as we do.
So meet the Kelleher family of J. Courtney Sullivan’s sophomore novel, Maine. Set aside your blind dislike of the lowly summer resident and get to know them. It would be a shame to miss out on this worthy, compelling novel due to seasonal prejudice.
There’s a larger prejudice afoot, too — the kind that leads publishers to put an anonymous blonde girl lounging on the beach on the book jacket. Is this chick lit? I’d like to tell you it’s not, but if you are a female author who writes about women and “women’s issues” — i.e. family, relationships, children — and if you are not Jennifer Egan, your book is going to be categorized as chick lit.
A word about Egan: She won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel that, much like Maine, tells the stories of interrelated characters through different perspectives at pivotal life moments. If you strip away the zeitgeist-y literary conceits and ineffectual posturing of Egan’s novel, you are left with the simple elegance of Maine.
So, am I saying this book is better than a Pulitzer Prize winner? Yes I am.
Maine begins at the start of summer, at a Cape Neddick-area beachfront property that’s been in the family for three generations. The book’s four narrators — all Kelleher women, by blood or marriage, whether they like it or not — span those generations, as well. The matriarch, 80-something Alice, has been around these parts long enough (since her husband won the beachfront property in a post-war bar bet) to be tentatively accepted by the local Catholic church.
As old ladies go, Alice is beautiful, and kind of a bitch. It was a smart, strategic move by Sullivan to begin the novel from Alice’s point of view; otherwise, she would be easy to hate. As it stands, the reader can develop a sympathy for her situation — the secret guilt that she inadvertently caused the death of her sister as a teenager — before the other characters can give you their two cents on her. To her adult daughter Kathleen, Alice is a cold mother with a drinking problem whom she’s carefully extricated from her life. To Kathleen’s 32-year-old daughter Maggie, Alice is the beautiful, impossible-to-please grandmother whose approval she craves. And to Ann Marie, the dutiful daughter-in-law, Alice is a woman who has so alienated her own children that it’s her responsibility to care for her, albeit in the selfish hope of inheriting said Maine beach house.
By alternating between the voices and perspectives of the four women, we gain insights into their stories, their pasts and presents, and their views of each other. As in most families, there are a lot of misunderstandings and lingering resentments. Throw in some intensive Catholic guilt, a death by fire, an accidental-on-purpose pregnancy and drinking problems all around and you’ve got yourself a real page-turner.
The plot is not as relevant as the very real, deeply flawed characters Sullivan has created. It mainly serves to bring the four women together, to Maine, and to force them to finally confront long-simmering issues head on. For the reader, privy to many sides of each story, our compassion for each character builds with each chapter’s narrative hand-off. By the end, we have a deeper understanding of the ways our own experiences color our personality, and a deeper appreciation of the importance of empathy, especially toward those closest to us, if not also toward those “from away.”
— Molly Finkelstein