by J. Courtney Sullivan; Knopf, 2011; 386 pages; $25.95.
Maine, the new novel from the author of the best-selling Commencement, begins as this year’s beach read, but eventually emerges as an exquisitely written examination of four women who have little else in common but the fact that they are family, plain and simple.
It is a novel of relationships, of “belief in the importance of generations, of one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before.”
Alice Kelleher has returned to her summer home on Cape Neddick, Maine, to prepare for the arrival of her family. Widowed from her devoted husband, Daniel, around 10 years, Alice remains the stern family matriarch to Kathleen, Patrick, Clare and their families, who vacation in Maine at meticulously scheduled intervals over the hot summer months. The beachfront property fell into Daniel’s hands early in their marriage, and now it contains the original cottage and a new house for Alice.
Kathleen divorced her husband, Paul, years ago despite her Catholic upbringing. A rebellious spirit, Kathleen now lives in California where she and her partner, Arlo, sell organic fertilizer and live a life free of the restrictions she was reared with. Kathleen’s older child, Maggie, is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn with Gabe, a boyfriend who seems to be less devoted to Maggie than she is to him. After another loud disagreement, Gabe leaves, and Maggie, who has discovered that she is pregnant, flees to her grandmother’s summer home to escape the pressures of her uncertain future.
Ann Marie, married to Patrick, senses that her future is uncertain as well. Long admired as a devoted, wife, mother and grandmother, Ann Marie often senses the emptiness of her middle years. Patrick remains devoted to her, but that’s simply not enough. Taking time to care for Alice never seems as rewarding as it might be. So Ann Marie plunges into her new hobby, an ironic comment on her discontent: She designs perfectly appointed dollhouses.
Kathleen, who has avoided the summer gatherings since her father’s death, decides she must come to Maine to spend time with the pregnant Maggie, thereby overlapping the time given to Ann Marie’s family. Each of the four brings her own discontent as woman and as Catholic. Each woman harbors secrets and disappointment, sometimes getting through the day with too much wine and not enough sympathy.
Yet by its end, Maine becomes something more than a simple summer page-turner. It is, instead J. Courtney Sullivan’s subtle contemplation of three generations of women who realize that “it felt nice when you saw yourself evolving a bit,” that, because they lived as they did, the world inherited by women of the next generation would be “incrementally better than the one they lived in now.”
Steven Whitton is professor of English at Jacksonville State University.