J. Courtney Sullivan (Facebook) (Twitter)
Vintage (2012), Paperback (ISBN 0307742210 / 9780307742216)
Fiction, 528 pages
Reason for reading: Personal, vacation
Opening lines: “Alice decided to take a break from packing. She lit a cigarette, leaning back in one of the wicker chairs that were always slightly damp from the sea breeze. She glanced around at the cardboard boxes filled with her family’s belongings, each glass and salt shaker and picture frame wrapped carefully in newspaper. There were at least a couple of boxes in every room of the house. She needed to make sure she had taken them all to Goodwill by the time the children arrived. This had been their summer home for sixty years, and it amazed her how many objects they had accumulated. She didn’t want anyone to be burdened by the mess once she was gone.
“She could tell by the heavy clouds that it was about to rain. In Cape Neddick, Maine, that May, you were likely to see a thunderstorm every afternoon. This didn’t bother her. She never went down to the beach anymore.”
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. As three generations of women arrive at the family's beach house, 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.
Comments: I took the perfect novel with me on a trip to New England. I picked up J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine based on good word from some of my most trusted blogger friends, and it’s been hanging around TBR Purgatory for almost a year. When I decided that I wasn’t bringing any books associated with review responsibilities on our family vacation this month, it seemed an obvious choice--we were spending ten days in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Reading this novel on its home turf--and on the plane back home from my visit there, in between editing photos that I took there--certainly made it more of an experience; the type of novel it is--lengthy but fast-moving, propelled by family drama and complicated, conflicted characters--is made-to-order vacation reading.
|Credit: theus50.com, via Google Image Seearch|
The state of Maine’s license-plate motto is “Vacationland,” and for many New Englanders, its southern coast defines the concept of summer: cottages near small beach towns, long days of family gatherings for barbecues and water play, picnics and the freshest berries and seafood. Three generations of the Kelleher family have spent their summers this way, at their property in Cape Neddick, for sixty years. However, the family dynamics have shifted since patriarch Daniel died a decade ago, and his widow Alice is making plans for the home he left her. So are her son Patrick and his wife Ann Marie. Meanwhile, her daughter Kathleen has made a new life on the West Coast and hasn’t come back to Maine since her father died, although Kathleen’s daughter Maggie finds a sense of home there.
While the central action in Maine occurs over several weeks in early summer, the backstories of these characters are explored at length, and by shifting focus with each chapter between the perspectives of Alice, Ann Marie, Kathleen, and Maggie, Sullivan strengthens her characterizations with the women’s views of one another. It’s a device that rounds them out and helps render each of them more sympathetic, and since none of them really comes across as terribly likable on her own merits, I thought it added depth, interest, and a distinct sense of realism.
My own personal history includes about a decade of Northeastern summers--I grew up in coastal Connecticut, but my extended family were more New Jersey lakes than New England beaches people. That said, I think I would have appreciated Maine s sense of place anyway, but reading the novel in the midst of being there myself definitely made the whole thing more affecting for me, and I think it helped me plunge more deeply into the lives of the Kelleher family. I don’t feel much need to know what else might become of them after the last page of the novel, but I do think I need to read some more of J. Courtney Sullivan’s fiction, even if I’m not going on a vacation.
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