Tuesday, June 14, 2011

MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan, from the ARC (June 2011), from A.A. Knopf, 384 pages

The epigraph to MAINE is the novel's emotional touchstone: "Just do everything we didn't do and you will be perfectly safe." ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter.

Such a wistful sentiment sets you up for all that is to come: spilled wine and secrets; heartache; love as hard as a stone. Over the course of one summer you will meet the Kelleher women: octogenarian matriarch Alice, her middle-aged black sheep daughter Kathleen, Kathleen's thirty-something writer daughter Maggie and Alice's miniature house obsessed daughter-in-law Ann Marie.

The novel opens with Alice furtively packing up bits and pieces of her summer home in preparation for its eventual gift to her local parish, St. Michael's by the sea, currently overseen by the charming and handsome Father Donnelly who reminds her "of crooners from the fifties." Plus, he "had chosen a vocation from another time and was more thoughtful in a way she didn't know young people could be anymore." Alice slips easily in and out of time, remembering the summer her husband Daniel won the property on a bet in 1945, and how the first time she saw it, she gasped: "The road was from a fairy tale, a long stretch of sand inside a tunnel of lush pine trees." Romantic that he was, Daniel "carved a shamrock into the soft trunk of a birch tree" and "added the letters A.H." for "Alice's. House." Haunted by a traumatic loss in her past, Alice is tricked into magically thinking that her beloved sister Mary would "turn the corner at any moment." Mary's appearance, however, is never to be, save through Alice's memory and the cruel prompting of her then teenish daughter Kathleen.

The MAINE property is replete with family history of children and grandchildren and Alice still feels sentimental about the old cottage, "with its familiar details, and stories from their past tucked inside each cupboard and under every bed....This was where Clare had learned to walk, and Patrick had broken his arm one summer, trying to jump off the roof of the screen porch and fly like Superman....Where she and Daniel had taken countless strolls to look at the stars, hand in hand, not a word spoken." Like Alice, I have been lucky enough to be going to cottage country in the Muskokas all of my life. There, on a property purchased by my paternal grandparents in the fifties, my family has shared both celebration and heartache. Just like the fictional Kellehers.

My parents became engaged at the dock in 1962 and traded stolen kisses in the early days of their courtship. As children we were sent into the bush to pick wild blueberries by our Irish grandfather, toting the pot used to boil corn, when he was fed up with our whining for one more game of Euchre, Old Maid or Rumoli. As teenagers, David, Denise and I learned how to drive the little tin boat, swam across to the island to wear ourselves out before sleep, and hosted countless friends around makeshift campfires out on the slab of Canadian Shield where more often than not David strummed his guitar and sang his way through Neil Young, David Wilcox, Cat Stevens, Blue Rodeo and Garth Brooks. And, it was on that lake that David died in a boat crash, just after his 25th birthday, and the geography took on new, resonant meaning for those of us left behind.

As I was thumbing my way through MAINE, I felt an especial kinship to many of the characters, but particularly to the summer place those generations of Kellehers inhabit. A place that insists that truths be told, no matter how difficult they may be to hear. And, I recognized in Alice's less judgmental response to her granddaughter Maggie's predicament, my own grandmother's open-hearted acceptance of my own follies that I carry with me long after she's gone.

In J. Courtney Sullivan's MAINE, in spite of the sibling rivalry and ever-present pulse of Catholic guilt, abiding, irrational love endures. This book is one of THE reads of the summer of 2011. Treat yourself to a copy.

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