My family is one that’s full of strange rifts and cracks: a grandmother who’s sealed herself off from both her own family and her husband’s after being slighted as a young woman; an uncle who will drive three hours to put in an appearance at a family event and then hightail it after he’s finished his first beer; cousins at war over perceived parental preference during their childhood years–a series of events culminating in a massive blow-up at a recent wedding; and perhaps worst of all, a frosty, distant toleration of each other.
The old saw of blood being thicker than water has nothing to do with standing by people because they’re your family and you’re as a result connected by some lovely deep bond. It’s about being stuck with your kin no matter how awfully you treat each other. (After all, you might need a blood transfusion one day, and guess who’s most likely to be a good match?) And all those iniquities, abuses of trust, and brutal comments resonate down through the generations, slowly poisoning whole family trees until their leaves curl up and their branches slump.
Needless to say, Courtney Sullivan’s Maine is readily identifiable for most anyone who has wallowed in the rueful depths of the familial trough. Told from the perspective of four women from the Kellerher clan, it’s a painful look at the myriad ways in which our families influence the types of lives we lead, but also at how our own perspectives can be so very coloured by our own experiences–or at least the stories that we tell ourselves about that experience.
The family matriarch is eighty-something Alice, a stern and unforgiving woman who feels simultaneously abandoned and exploited by her family, whom she rarely sees save during the summer. Her daughter Kathleen treads warily around her, having been the subject of Alice’s acid tongue after having leaving her marriage and admitting to her alcoholism. Daughter-in-law Anne Marie is the golden child interloper, a Stepford Wife-style homemaker who can do no wrong in Alice’s eyes, but who has a rough past longing to rear its bogan head. Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, is a writer who appears to the others to have it all–a successful career in New York–but who has found out that she’s pregnant to her deadbeat boyfriend. And as it’s summer, all of them are about to converge upon Alice’s beach house in Maine.
The Maine of the title is less about the physical place than it is an idea: the notion of “returning home” and reuniting with one’s clan. And as such it’s probably fitting that the majority of the narrative takes place in the lead-up to this pilgrimage rather than in Maine itself: it’s in the preparation that we can see the hesitation and ambivalence each character feels about not only returning to Maine, but also their place in the family itself. This is a novel that’s largely driven by internal narratives rather than a strong external plot, and generally it’s a skilled work, with Sullivan cleverly teasing out various “grass is greener” ideas and dashing them quite violently with the next point of view switch.
Initially I enjoyed the author’s deft contrasting of different characters’ perceptions of their relatives’ lives and the truth behind their own actions, but after a while the approach does begin to feel a little contrived and repetitive. We know that if Alice is wounded by her family’s treatment of her she’s probably done something nasty to deserve it; if Kathleen is proud of her daughter Maggie’s independence, Maggie probably thinks it’s not all cracked up to be; if Maggie is longing for domestic servitude a la Anne Marie, then Anne Marie is probably about ready to hurl some crockery across the room and so on.
The reliance on dark pasts and prior hurt also begins to feel a little melodramatic, and perhaps that’s why I was most taken by Anne Marie’s character. Unlike the others, who are well and truly in touch with their individual narratives of woe, Anne Marie is doing her best to put on a brave smile and forge ahead. As such, she seems as though she has the most to lose; not to mention that her position in the family is fairly precarious given that she’s only a part of it through marriage.
Unfortunately, while there’s some lovely, witty writing and some fascinating characterisation on display, the novel is quite bloated and unwieldy, and undermines itself by delving back into the past to try to shed some more light on its point of view characters–even though the reader can glean quite a lot just from what is and isn’t said by the characters themselves. The ending, too, is unsatisfying, lacking the punch that we might have expected based on all of the ills and complaints stirred up here. I can’t help but feel that this would have been a stronger book if it had been pruned back and its narration kept to the present day. That said, if your family is as dysfunctional as mine, you’ll find it all a bit cathartic: life could be worse.
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