Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. Their beachfront property, won on a barroom bet after the war, sits on three acres of sand and pine nestled between stretches of rocky coast, with one tree bearing the initials “A.H.” At the cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface.

As three generations of Kelleher women descend on the property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.

By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other."

Review:  I know it's a popular trend to change the narrator every little bit, both to change the pacing of a story and to create interest in a range of characters.  For whatever reason, I'm not thrilled with the constant shifting of narrators and stories.  Sometimes I feel as though I am just getting attached to a character, or even just starting to understand what's going on in a character's life, and it veers off into a new direction.  Having said that, Maine has a range of mainly female characters who direct the story.  Centered around the matriarch Alice, who has decided to leave some prime real estate on the coast of Maine to the Catholic Church.  Obviously, if her daughters and grandchildren knew, they would be up in arms, but Alice is determined to give it all to the church.

To this bit of family drama are a number of other personal dramas going on in each household.  I think I was most drawn in by 32-year old Maggie's story, the granddaughter.  Her relationship issues were so painful to watch that I had to keep reading to see what she would do.  Her boyfriend was ridiculously emotionally abusive and manipulative (in my humble opinion) and really did a number on Maggie.  You could see her struggling to figure out how to hold on to him, even though all readers must be screaming at the pages for her to kick him to the curb.
The other women have dramatic stories as well, but they sometimes take a number of circuits, through everyone's stories to really get there.  As with life, each woman is injured and trying to protect herself.  There are old grudges and pains that we only learn as the story progresses, that make their relationships to one another a bit easier to understand.  I mainly thought their insights into one another to be really telling, as they only saw things through their own experiences, missing all that was going on that no one ever saw.  In truth, isn't that what we all do?  The amount of misunderstanding and miscommunication because of our own issues that filter what we see could fill millions of pages.  I found that to be a great, poignant reminder of our misjudgments.  

Overall, I think this was an interesting story.  The narrative style wasn't my favorite, and I think that for readers who enjoy a cast of complex female characters and stories, this might be a good fit.  For me, it left me wanting more from just one or two of them.  This isn't an area of the country I've read many stories set, so for that I was pretty interested and would have loved more descriptions and details.  In short, nice story elements with a lot of complex characters to figure out.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the novel.


  1. I loved this book but a lot of the enjoyment for me is I grew up in MA and know all the areas very well that the author set her story in. Being brought up Catholic gave me a good insight into Alice's thoughts on the church.

  2. This doesn't sound like greatest book for me--I generally don't get into constant shifting of viewpoints, especially when one of the characters is more interesting.

    I wonder why there aren't more novels set in Maine? Maybe we just don't see a lot of them living in the western US.