John and Mary Keane are ordinary people, too ordinary perhaps by today’s standards: quiet, steady, dependable. They grew up during the Depression and World War II, and when these were over and done, they met and married and managed to get along with each other, sometimes better than others, and had four children who lived different lives entirely.
This is the kind of plotline that would challenge most authors beyond their capabilities, accustomed as they are these days to more exciting literary forays. However, like Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott knows what she’s doing: Her five previous novels, dealing with similar ordinary people and situations, have earned her critical kudos and a fistful of honors and tributes. Out of the rich soil of that old critics’ cliché, the human condition, McDermott raises uncommon, and uncommonly beautiful, plants.
John and Mary are not so much individuals as middle-class, Irish Catholic archetypes (referred to mostly in terms of their relationships to others), but their children are allotted personalities of their own. Life on Long Island, the Vietnam War, cultural upheaval, the sexual revolution all play their part in the individualization of the two sons and two daughters of whom we take leave far too early. The characters learn that life goes fast: one moment nudges the other out of the way. And, in the end, you could not have [the future] without the [loss of the past].”
With McDermott, there is always more than meets the eye. One delicately drawn scene of the family at the beach shadows all the dreams and fears of the future in the present play of relationships. Then there is the most faithful (eight pages but still engaging!) replay I’ve ever read of standing in line (at the World’s Fair), and the occasional reference to a neighborhood pianist, which culminates in a final point: To live life honorably and fully is a gift which blesses you and those around you.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.