Maine a Page-Turner That Blows the Sheen Off Bourgeois Life

MAINE (2011)
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf 978-030759126
* * * *

There are two types of fiction writers, those who extrapolate from real-life experience, and those who reside entirely in their imaginations. For her sake, I hope that J. Courtney Sullivan is from the second school because if her family is anything at all like the Kelleher clan at the heart of her newest novel, Maine, she will spend every royalty nickel she makes on therapy. To call the Kellehers dysfunctional is akin to calling Rush Limbaugh insensitive—correct, but light years short of ultimate truth. It gives away nothing to say that among the book’s pleasures is its devastating critique of blind faith and bourgeois ethics.

I picked up this book because I was headed to Maine for a vacation and know well the Cape Neddick/Ogunquit region where much of the book is set. It is a beautiful area, the perfect backdrop for hell masquerading as heaven. Sullivan’s sprawling novel spans four generations of a Boston Irish Catholic family. That’s a lot of time and, initially, the sheer number of characters seems daunting, but it eventually centers on four women: 83-year-old family matriarch, Alice; her eldest daughter Kathleen; Kathleen’s daughter, Maggie; and Alice’s (overly) dutiful daughter-in-law Ann Marie. Everything revolves around Alice, a self-absorbed, vain (and still striking) woman who wears her piety like a too-revealing summer dress. She is a complex character, but also so thoroughly calculating that hardly a page goes by in which you don’t wish you could personally strangle the old bat (even after her dark secret is revealed). But she has plenty of obnoxious competition--the Kellehers are a collection of substance abusers, recovering addicts, ne’er do wells, liars, egoists, social climbers, dreamers, and other malcontents.  When he lived, Alice’s husband, Daniel, kept the lid on the poison jar; now that he's gone, not even the cold Maine waters can absorb Kelleher toxicity. The central role of the Catholic Church notwithstanding, Daniel is the only thing resembling a saint in this novel.

Right after World War II, Daniel he won a bet in which the payoff was a hunk of oceanside real estate along what was then an undeveloped slice of southern Maine coastline. Now the unpretentious cottage he built and where Alice holds court is reachable only through the clamor of Route 1 and even that oasis stands cheek-by-jowl with a Yuppie McMansion thrown up by their lawyer son Patrick and his obsequious wife Ann Marie. Ann Marie grew up working-class disrespectful—think gangsters without money. The family beach house is part of her relentless drive to live in a happy bubble, as is her refusal to see that her own son is the white-collar analog to her thug/brother, her fruitless currying of Alice’s favor, and her obsessive building of fantasy dollhouses that are like the beach house but without the Kellehers. (Well, that’s a start!) We soon get the point that the only way to stay sane is to stay as far removed from Alice as possible. Middle daughter Clare manages this, but not the eldest, Kathleen, though lord knows she’s tried. She divorced her philandering husband decades earlier, but that’s a mortal sin in the eyes of Alice, partly because of her putative faith and partly because Alice is partial to any slime ball who flatters her. Kathleen got drunk, got sober, met a Baby Boomer dreamer named Arlo, and moved to California to take up yoga and organic worm farming. (Yep!) Unfortunately, her own daughter, Maggie, forces her to end her self-imposed exile when she shows up at the beach with a muffin in the oven, but without her pathetic boyfriend, Gabe (whom Alice thought was wonderful).  Predictably, Kathleen rushes off to Maine to confront Maggie and, just as predictably, family sparks fly. (Maggie is a character over whom debates will rage. For the record, I found her as cloying as Gen Xers can be when they seek to shift the blame for all their troubles to anyone in the world except themselves.)

As a family drama, Maine is first rate. Sullivan has a great ear for dialogue and she also has a gift for observing small details that make ordinary things seem extraordinary. The novel is certainly open to the charge of being cluttered, as if Sullivan became so enamored of things she’s contemplated that she felt the need to force fit them into the plot. You will find echoes of the Catholic Church sex scandals, the Bulger family, Boston politics, and the devastating 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in which 492 people died. (And one suspects she’s eliding the 2003 Warwick, Rhode Island fire with some of that.) The book also feels claustrophobic when it moves to Boston or New York, as if it needs the Maine air to breathe. Okay, sure, but this is still a crisp novel, a proverbial page-turner that’s filled with memorable characters, skin-squirming situations, and quotable lines. It topped my summer reading list, but this Smith College graduate’s second novel makes for compelling reading in any season.

Footnote: I was mightily amused to read some of the comments left on Good Reads. Quite a few people hated the book because they didn’t “like” some of the characters. Duh! That’s the whole damn point. Sullivan hit the self-absorbed middle class with a right hook and Irish Catholicism with a left cross. If you don’t get that, maybe you should build dollhouses!


No comments: