Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf • $25.95 • on sale June 14, 2011
The book jacket of J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest novel does a pretty good job of setting the tone for this beach-worthy story, which centers around an oceanfront cottage in Maine. However, I knew I was in for a real treat when I cracked the spine of my copy and white sand literally fell out. The library patron who had borrowed the book before me must have deemed it worthy to read on vacation!
Sullivan made a name for herself with Commencement, the story of four women’s ups and downs after their graduation from Smith. In Maine, Sullivan proves again that she is adept at writing from multiple perspectives, although here the feat is even more impressive as the four narrators range in age from 30s to 80s. There is Alice, the matriarch with a sharp tongue and a painful secret; Kathleen, her reformed alcoholic daughter with a worm farm in California (who wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as her mother); Ann Marie, the “little miss perfect” daughter-in-law who has a few secrets of her own; and Maggie, the only daughter of Kathleen, who has recently become pregnant—at the same time she realizes her boyfriend is a jerk.
The best scenes in the novel actually take place in Maine, where Alice’s husband, Daniel, won a cottage in a bet 60 years before. (Much of the plot is leading up to Alice, Kathleen, Ann Marie and Maggie’s dramatic reunion.) Here’s a scene that takes place soon after Maggie and Alice have eaten dinner together at the cottage, after Maggie has innocently asked Alice how she met Daniel.
Alice saw her grandchildren as extensions of their parents, so that Ryan’s ambition and disappointment had her praying for Clare, and Chris’s roughness made her light candles for Kathleen. But she also blamed her daughters for how their children had turned out. How could she not? Kathleen had no sense of propriety whatsoever, and so her child saw nothing wrong with coming to Alice’s dinner table and asking her about her life’s most devastating moments.
Maggie had said that Daniel would want to see her painting again. That alone made Alice want to slap her across the face. What did she know about any of that? Daniel was a wonderful man, and she had loved him dearly. But he had never been interested in seeing her become anything besides another mother, another proper housewife. He had insisted that she stop drinking because of it; he had consulted their daughter about his cancer treatment rather than worry Alice’s pretty little head.
Don’t you think it could be good for us to talk about him? her granddaughter had asked preposterously, and in front of a complete stranger. Alice assumed she wanted to know only for the sake of that goddamn book she was writing. She wasn’t about to bare her soul to fulfill Maggie’s literary aspirations. The story of how she met Daniel, of how she lost her sister, would remain hers alone. It wasn’t anyone else’s business. But now Maggie had her thinking about all of it, and she hated to think about it.
Are you interested in reading Maine, which was our Top Pick in Fiction for July? What are you reading today?