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.