books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Three generations of Kelleher women descend upon the family’s property in Maine for an unforgettable summer.  Alice, the family’s matriarch, reflects on her life and the past 60 years of the summer home.  Kathleen, the black sheep daughter, struggles with her decision to never go back East again.  Ann Marie, the dutiful daughter-in-law with a martyr complex, fuels her marital frustrations into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush.  Maggie, 32 and newly pregnant, works to understand what it would mean to raise a child without her childish boyfriend.

J. Courtney Sullivan’s sophomore effort delves into the innermost lives and secrets of these four women.  The women are part of a dysfunctional family whose tragedies and heartbreaks are like those of other families, but Sullivan manages to craft a novel that is thoughtful and often meditative.  It is also really, really entertaining.

The rotating perspectives in the novel provide fresh insight into old wounds.  Sullivan manages to create distinct voices and personalities for all four Kelleher women, but she succeeds the most with Ann Marie, the only narrator to marry into the family.  Ann Marie’s a woman bored with her domestic life and obsessed with miniature dollhouses.  She goes out of her way for people and resents them when they don’t do the same for her.  Her zig-zagging thoughts are a nice reprise from the other Kelleher women’s rehashing of old family wounds.

The character of Alice is also remarkably well-drawn.  It is somewhat surprising that she is so much more strongly filled out than the young writer Maggie, whom Sullivan would be most likely to identify.  Alice’s memories of her past life haunt her and propel her drinking and devout Catholicism.  The observations of generational changes in the lives of these women are painful and particularly astute as Alice reflects on what her life could have been in a different time.

Slow to start, Maine builds upon itself into a beautiful novel.  Sullivan really hits her mark once all the women are in Maine, away from the rest of their lives and families.  It is here that the narration comes to life, the story picks up its pace, the dialogue starts to sizzle.  When the novel ends–summer not yet over–the reader can’t help but what will happen in July and August.  A reluctance to leave these women is the mark of a truly compelling story.

Highly, highly recommended.  I loved this one.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan.  Knopf: 2011.  Library copy.


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