Maine: book review

Maine , by J. Courtney Sullivan. Publisher: Knopf (June 14, 2011) Literary fiction. Hardcover, 400 pages.

She got the feeling that none of her children particularly liked one another, or worse, that they had no use for one another. So why keep the old place? And why bother coming up, year after year, when it only made her feel lonely, longing for something she’d already had?

J. Courtney Sullivan writes women vividly, flawed and in such a resonant way that you recognize women that you know in her characters. Sullivan focuses on the Kelleher family with all its dysfunction, hidden drama and interactions. The mercurial family matriarch Alice Kelleher has three children. Alice’s eldest daughter Kathleen is an eco-friendly free-spirit who moved to California to raise worms with her second husband, Arlo. Clare, the middle child, lives happily in Jamaica Plain with her husband where they run a successful business. Patrick, the youngest and most successful, seems most invested in Alice’s well-being.

The business was the perfect reflection of their relationship. Arlo was a dreamer, an optimist, a big-picture guy. And Kathleen was a realist—she told it like it was. Together, they just worked.

Alice’s husband Daniel died not too long ago which has left a void for the entire Kelleher clan. Lately in Maine, Alice spends the majority of time with the local priest. The rest of the family’s turned away from Catholicism for the most part. She questions her mothering ability even now. It turns out that Alice had always planned to move to Paris and become an artist but she met her husband Daniel and a new reality quashed her dreams.

She thought of how she never really liked children, though her friends always said positively everyone fell in love with their own once they had them. She felt as though her body was full of something bigger than itself, pushing against every inch of her, trying to get out. She wanted to say that she was here only by some strange accident, but that in reality she should be in a Paris apartment right now, painting in solitude.

In June, three generations of women converge on the cottage. Grand-daughter Maggie, who recently broke up with her boyfriend and discovered she’s pregnant, retreats to the beach. When she finally shares her secret with her mom, Kathleen rushes to be with her daughter in Maine. Though Kathleen isn’t very family oriented she loves her two children. She’s not been to Maine in a decade and that’s a rather thorny issue for her mother and even sister-in-law. Anne Marie, Alice’s seemingly perfect daughter-in-law, arrives harboring a bittersweet secret crush and painful truth [for her] about one of her children.

Family expectations, judgments and perceptions rarely change throughout the years. While I sometimes got a bit bogged down in all the peripheral characters, Sullivan tackles marriage and family dynamics in a solidly truthful and amusing manner in the densely packed Maine. It’s definitely the type of drama to dig into during the warm months.

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