Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

MaineMaine by J. Courtney Sullivan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an intense character study that follows four women in one family. It doesn't have a great deal of action but I loved the emotional journey that I took while reading this book. I have an affinity for books that explore the emotional lives of other people. I think this book is a great example of of that type of novel. I was swept into the inner lives of the Kelleher women and enjoyed every moment of it.

I tend to enjoy books with multifaceted characters - complex, interesting and not entirely likeable women, in particular. This is not a book with nice characters who most anyone can relate to. This is a book with tragic, complex, annoying and sometimes ugly women. They all have their own issues and blind spots and there are moments when you want to shake some sense into them. But, as the novel unfolds, the reader begins to see all of the pieces and parts of these women and their issues come together in what I think was a beautiful character study.

One of the things that I loved most about this novel was how Sullivan conveyed how impossible it is for any of us to really understand anyone else. Especially within a family. We think we know each other but we're really just playing out the same patterns that were developed early on. I found these women heartbreaking in this respect - their disconnection so sad, their connections so tenuous, and their stories so compelling. Alternately narrated by the four women, the story is told through the subtle differences revealed in repeated stories. This is obviously designed to illustrate the various ways an event can be interpreted. And this is what Sullivan really excels at - showing you exactly how different people experience the same situations, how one small, seemingly insignificant thing can change relationships forever, how difficult it can be to care about someone that you perceive through a lens of the past.

As you can see, I was very taken with this novel. My only complaint is the pacing - it took awhile to get moving for me, to pull me in. I think that may be one of the things that put some readers off. I noticed that the reviews seem to be mixed in the blogosphere and on GoodReads. I think this is one of those love it/hate it books ... for me, I loved it!

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1 comment:

  1. "Maine" as the title would imply is largely set in Maine at a beach house on the water. Won in a bet by the patriarch of the Kelleher family over sixty years ago, this became the summer retreat for the family and multiple generations have spent extended time there. Alice is the widow of our patriarch and has chosen to reside at the coast for the entire summer with each of their children being assigned a month to come stay over the summer. There are two houses, the original cottage and then a larger, more contemporary home built later. Alice and Big Daniel had three children who don't get along well as adults and Alice seems to only really get along with her daughter-in-law. The novel has as its focus Alice, her daughter Kathleen, Kathleen's daughter Maggie, and Ann Marie the aforementioned daughter-in-law. A family that is highly aware if its Irish roots, it is filled with lots of "isms" -- Catholicism, alcoholism, and co-dependency run rampant. Not to put too fine a point on it, this family practically defines dysfunction. While there is a lot of negative emotion and interaction, there are also deep bonds of love that we are privy to as the story gets told. As the family members interact over the summer months, all the history between them comes up as well as events in Alice's life that have had a profound effect on who she became in later life.

    Beautifully written and heartbreakingly told, this is a novel that will resonate with many readers and some folks will feel like they actually know some of these people. There were times when I wanted to jump up and read passages aloud they were so insightful and brilliant. Where I think some of the negative reviews may be coming from (just guessing here) is the misunderstanding of what the book is. It isn't a quick, light beach read that you skim through in an afternoon or two - which I happen to love but this isn't that. Even though the characters are primarily all women, it's not chick-lit. It is strong, literary fiction with a powerful story and excellent character development that could leave the reader emotionally wrung out by the end of the book.