“They passed the entrance twice and had to turn around. But on the third try, they turned at what hardly seemed like a fork. Alice gasped. The road was from a fairy tale, a long stretch of sand inside a tunnel of lush pine trees. When they reached the end, there was the ocean, sparkling in the sun, dark blue against a small sandy beach, which was nestled between two long stretches of rocky coast. ‘Welcome home,’ Daniel said.”
J. Courtney Sullivan, MAINE
MAINE, by J. Courtney Sullivan, was published in hardcover in June of 2011, and just came out in paperback. Both editions have hit the New York Times Bestsellers list, and the novel was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine. I had intended to read it while at the beach later this summer, but picked it up recently to read a chapter. Five days later, I finished the book in tears, and missed the characters who I’d gotten to know and love in spite of their flaws.
MAINE is the story of three generations of a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and the beach house that becomes the touch point and meeting place for them throughout the years. When the novel begins, Alice–the matriarch of the family and one of the point of view characters–is cleaning out the house because she has secretly willed it and the land to the Catholic Church upon her death. Her rationale for keeping it from her children is that she thinks that two of the three of them stay as far away from her as they can, and the other only seems interested in the property for material reasons. As she travels through the rooms and prepares for the staggered summer arrivals of her children and grandchildren, Alice reflects on her long, often painful life, its joys and tragedies, and what she has become.
One of her granddaughters, Maggie, starts the next section. She is in a hollow relationship with a selfish man, and finds out that she’s pregnant. As she agonizes over whether or not to tell her boyfriend (who has decided he doesn’t want to live with her after all) about the baby, she decides to head to Maine to the beach house to reconnect with herself and her family.
The third point of view character is Kathleen, Maggie’s mother and Alice’s daughter. Kathleen has been sober for years and raises earthworms on a farm in California with her ex-hippie boyfriend, Arlo. She has rebelled against Alice’s glamour, religion, and tradition in every way, but through her daughter finds that she’s not as different from her mother as she’d like to believe.
The final voice in the book is that of Alice’s daughter-in-law, Ann Marie, the perfect New England housewife, mother, and grandmother. As she tries to keep the peace in the family while finding meaning in her own life, a secret crush threatens to undo her.
Sullivan’s portrayal of these flawed women is nothing short of brilliant. Her ability to capture the interior lives of such different characters with such honestly, paced perfectly within layers of story that span many time periods, makes for a truly rich novel. The women experience growth and change without tidy resolution, but the ending is immensely satisfying.
As a woman from a large Irish Catholic family (we’ll leave out ‘dysfunctional’ so I don’t get myself into trouble) I identified with the drama, the dynamics, and the politics of family relationships. Most of all, however, I connected with the deep current of love that keeps us coming back to those who sometimes hurt us the most.
If you enjoy novels of multigenerational family drama, you won’t find one better than MAINE. With characters real enough to step off the pages, and a beach setting vivid enough to put sand between your toes, MAINE deserves every ounce of praise I’ve read for it. I give MAINE my highest recommendation.