Maine (A Summer Series Book Review)

I love summer books. I love the romance of summer. I love books about different vacation spots. I love books about road trips. I love seeing the beach on the cover of a book. To celebrate this lovely season, every Thursday I’m going to post a book and review of a summer book I’d recommend reading by the pool, at the beach, while driving across America (or whatever country you call home), in a hammock, in a cabin, on a boat, or at home as you dream of vacation. Happy Summer, everyone! 
This week’s summer book is: 

Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 388
Synopsis from Goodreads:

In her best-selling debut, Commencement, J. Courtney Sullivan explored the complicated and contradictory landscape of female friendship. Now, in her highly anticipated second novel, Sullivan takes us into even richer territory, introducing four unforgettable women who have nothing in common but the fact that, like it or not, they’re family.

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.



If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to write off Maine as a light-hearted, summer read; with its idyllic beach cover and flourished title writing, but it is not the easy, fun read you might expect. Which isn’t to say that it was hard to get through, it just doesn’t have the levity one might expect at first glance. Like a blurb on her book Commencement stated: it’s the smart woman’s beach read. It’s funny this rash of East coast summer house books that have come out lately. Just a couple weeks before I read Maine I read Summer Rental by Mary Kay Andrews. Side by side descriptions of these two titles would make them seem like almost the same book, but they are really very different. The main reason for the difference is this: J. Courtney Sullivan allows for her characters to have deep, disturbing human flaws that the female characters in fluffy books just don’t have. There were times when I down-right despised some of the women in this book, but I cared about them none-the-less because they were real, fleshed-out characters who were not all good or all bad.

The book follows four women of a family. The matriach, Alice; her daughter, Kathleen; Kathleen’s daughter, Maggie; and Alice’s daughter-in-law Anne Marie. The bulk of the action takes place at the isolated family summer home in Maine, although not all of the characters are there for the whole time. While the novel flits between all four women and all of the characters have fully-realized lives, the book belongs to Alice. Alice is a vile woman and an even worse mother. What keeps the reader invested is the glimpses of the past that show how her life has shaped her-although even young Alice can be a spiteful bitch-her alcoholic dad, the jealousy she feels for her sister, the desire to live an independent life at a time when almost all women had to get married and have children, and a guilt that consumes her that unfolds throughout the novel. This knowledge ALMOST makes up for her malice, although not quite.

She is the worst to her daughter Kathleen, who fled the east coast for California in middle age, leaving all of her family behind, including her two grown children. Her story revolves around her new life with her boyfriend on their worm farm (yes, you read that right). As much as she hates Alice, there are pieces of the two that are the same. This aspect of the book is done seamlessly, the reader understands how Ms. Sullivan is weaving this mother-daughter dance into the narrative, but it doesn’t seem forced or fake.

Anne Marie is the outsider, although she married into the family decades earlier. She is obsessed with dollhouses and has her eye on a neighbor. She is treated like the daughter Alice never had, because neither of Alice’s own daughters can stand her.

Finally, Maggie is the only character south of 40. She is in love with a man she knows isn’t right for her and starts the novel pregnant with his child, but unable to tell him. Her story revolves around figuring out how she is going to live her life now that she will be a mother. Her relationship with Kathleen (her mom) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where Alice and Kathleen are distant, Kathleen and Maggie are uncomfortably close.

Overall, I liked Maine. Again, the characters are so fully-rounded it made me jealous, I know how hard it is to write characters the reader might not like without turning them into caricatures. This is the second book by Ms. Sullivan that I have enjoyed and I am excited to see what she comes out with next. 


14 thoughts on “Maine (A Summer Series Book Review)

Add yours

  1. Great review! I have had my eye on this book for awhile now since I LOVE summertime reads. That's fantastic that the author developed the characters and made them very real. I will have to move this book up on my TBR pile. I want to read latest book, The Engagements. I've heard good things.


  2. I read Maine last year so my memory is a little fuzzy, but I remember respecting it, but not loving it. I kind of felt like the whole book was giving background information and I kept waiting to really get into the story. I have The Engagements at home. I'm eager to see what the author does next. Great review!


  3. It's quite interesting how this book turned out to be so deep. Like you said, the cover seems to say that the book is going to be a light-hearted beach read. It's great to find one with well-rounded and developed characters. I haven't read anything by this author but now that I know what she can do, I'll definitely keep my eyes out for her. Great review! 🙂


  4. Respect is a good word. This did have a lot of background information and not a lot of action, but I loved seeing how the past shaped these women into who they are. Especially how the past shaped Alice, which in turn shaped her daughter. I've been reading the Engagements, but keep getting distracted. Thanks for stopping by!


  5. This does sound really good, and you almost sold me, but the pregnancy scared me off. I love most dark subject matter, but pregnancy and babies are a no go for me. X_X It's a weakness as a reader, but such it is. At least I know myself. Sounds like Sullivan is one to watch, though!


  6. I love stories revolving around complex familial relationships. I definitely think the cover led me to believe this was a lighter read, so I don't think I'll be taking this to the beach with me, but it's definitely a book I'd love to read later. Thanks for sharing!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: