11 July 2011

Up north

I found out J. Courtney Sullivan's second novel MAINE was about to come out through Twitter, as one does. Electronic galleys were being promoted specifically to romance bloggers, which struck me as odd since Sullivan's debut COMMENCEMENT, about four Smith graduates four years out of college, was described to me as making a big literary splash. And the more I read about MAINE, the harder pressed I was to find the romance in it because, spoiler alert, there really isn't one.*

Maybe "romance bloggers" was some kind of code for "people who enjoy ultimately evanescent, but pleasant books dealing with realistic problems." MAINE was very well-written, but if someone asks me in two years to summarize it, I probably won't be able to differentiate it from similar Jennifer Weiner/ Elin Hilderbrand families-on-Northeastern-vacation tomes -- which is different from saying I didn't enjoy it, because I did.

Like COMMENCEMENT, MAINE frames its world from the perspectives of four women, this time with a familial bond even stronger than college ties. At the beginning of the summer, Boston-born matriarch Alice Kelleher is up in Maine by herself at the cabin that has been in the family for fifty years, ever since her late husband Daniel won it in a bet. Unbeknownst to the family, Alice plans to leave the cottage and the now-incredibly valuable beachfront property surrounding it to a local Catholic church, but until then each of her children get a month: June is for Kathleen, long since moved to California to run a worm farm (!!!) but who plans to send up her daughter Maggie, a writer in New York. Maggie was hoping to bring her boyfriend Gabe, but they break up on the eve they were supposed to leave -- before Maggie had time to break the news that she's pregnant. July is for son Patrick and the perfect daughter-in-law Ann Marie, who by turns frets about Alice being lonely in the cottage and envisions the day her family will inherit it. (August is for third daughter Clare, who doesn't get much ink.) And as soon as everyone starts thinking how glad they would be to get up to Maine without interacting each other, you know their hands will be forced at some point.

Some of the details in MAINE are exact, and some are too exactingly precious -- like Ann Marie's obsession with her new hobby of decorating doll houses and entering them in competitions. O suffocating perfection is there. (But I for one appreciated the single telling detail of Gabe's friend who is described as saying "[Insert verb] this, motherfucker" constantly.) I just don't think that was enough glue. The one story that will stick with me is the revelation of a tragic incident in Alice's past that is explicitly given as how she ended up a great-grandmother instead of fulfilling her dream to be a painter in Paris -- and even given all that, her crustiness sometimes verges to nastiness.

The cloud hovering over the four women of MAINE isn't love at all, but rather money, and each woman's relationship to it. Alice owns the big house but reuses her tea bags, remembering how her father would threaten to beat her for not bringing home enough money from her job as a legal secretary during World War II. Ann Marie, from a similar background but insecure as an empty-nester, spends too much and frets about it, but not enough to make corrections to what she feels she deserves. Kathleen feels resented by the family for a special bequest in her late father's will, although she saw it as the price of independence from judgment for her divorce and AA membership. And Maggie, with a stable and flexible job, wonders if it's stable enough to support two, not even envisioning her future seaside retirement. In the end the women can talk about some of their contradicting attitudes, but not these.

Not growing up in a cabin-going family or culture is no impediment to having fun with MAINE, although those who did may be able to relate to the resultant tangle of family issues and roster of traditions such as outdoor showers and "summer people" versus the year-rounders. Better to read it closer to vacation than just after, though.

* There is, however, a hilarious anti-romantic figure in the young priest of the parish where Alice is bequeathing her property, who thereafter hangs around fixing stuff in the house and who Maggie has a brief crush on before realizing, right, a priest. No THORN BIRDSy stuff going on. Retroactive spoiler alert.

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