Sunday, July 24, 2011

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

   Maine is J. Courtney Sullivan's second novel, and it is a spectacular book.  I had a feeling I might like it after I saw that Gloria Steinem, Amy Greene, and Meg Wolitzer have praised her writing...I was correct.

   Maine alternates between the voices of 4 women in the Kelleher family.  Alice, the matriarch, has been a widow for 10 years, and she is struggling with her loneliness coupled with the pressure of keeping up appearances.  At times, she is cruel and bitter, but through her story, it is evident that Alice has struggled throughout her entire life with guilt, depression, and the overwhelming duty of motherhood.  Kathleen is Alice's first daughter.  In her late 50s now, she has (understandably) chosen to separate herself from the rest of the Kelleher family by moving to California with her boyfriend where they run an organic worm farm.  Kathleen is a recovered alcoholic but is still plagued by the memories of her addiction.  Maggie is Kathleen's daughter who is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in the midst of a bad relationship.  Even though she is in her early 30s and is a successful writer in New York, the realization of motherhood is terrifying for Maggie - especially the prospect of raising her child without a father.  Ann Marie is not a Kelleher woman by birth, but she married into the family 35 years ago and has always dealt with rivalries that ensue from her presence as an "outsider."  She is seen by the rest of the family as an over-eager snob, but Ann Marie has issues of her own - she is just better at concealing them.

   These 4 women think they have nothing in common, but whether they like it or not, they are all united by the Kelleher name and by the family's summer cottage in Maine, which is where they have vacationed every year for their entire lives.  For them, the house is both a place of turmoil and of refuge, and the characters that pass through it are as vivid and distinct as the setting itself.  Maine is perfect for someone who enjoys character-driven, multi-generational family sagas.  Sullivan's book reminds me of Jonathan Franzen's novel in the way that the characters are so detailed and multidimensional that it seems like they must be a real family.  Even the setting is so incredibly vivid that it is easy to visualize what the Kellehers are up to now as they spend another summer on the Maine shore, just as they have for many generations.