Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

I read this book during a three and a half hour plane flight and it was the perfect flight companion. I love reading stories about unique family dynamics and the family at the center of this novel is certainly unique in it’s brand of dysfunction. I also enjoyed the fact that a historical event is at the center of the family’s backstory – the fire at the Cocoanut Club in Boston in 1942.

I was fascinated by the closed-up nature of the matron of the story. Alice makes her opinions known and rarely bites her tongue when criticizing her daughters or granddaughters and yet she keeps so much of her personal story to herself. I can’t imagine my own deceased grandmothers doing so. And yet I realize there is so much that is unknown to me about my own grandmothers' lives. In a world with internet and genealogy websites, and a constant news cycle, its hard to imagine a deeply traumatic event being locked up inside one individual. The Cocoanut Club fire and the death of her sister, transforms Alice's life path. And it is her inability to forgive herself that dictates her flawed relationship with her children and grandchildren.

Alice’s deep faith was also intriguing to me since I know so very little about Catholicism. Alice's faith sustains her and explains many of her life choices. At first glance it's hard to understand this (living in an era with so much overt agnosticism) and yet it rings completely true to the character and the tenor of the story.

One of the most interesting aspect was examining the intergenerational changes and interactions. Alice wanted to become an artist but she squashed that dream and tried to devote herself to her husband and providing grandchildren for her parents. Alice struggled to be motherly and battled alcoholism until her husband gave her an ultimatum. Alice’s oldest daughter, Kathryn, battles alcoholism just like her mother and looks back at motherhood as something that restricts a woman’s freedom and life choices. She is not overjoyed when her old daughter considers single motherhood. A grandmother who wished she had rejected the traditional path, a daughter who battles many of her mother's demons, and a granddaughter who has made it as a writer and yet yearns to be a mother. So much changes over time. I loved seeing how much changes inside three generations. Also it was interesting how Alice's faith and churchgoing was juxtaposed with Kathryn's new aged dogmatism regarding AA, meditation and yoga. This all rang so true to me. Each generation sought deeper meaning but their time period dictated what they clutched onto.

There are so many fascinating aspects of this story. The fact that Alice was closer to her daughter-in-law than her daughters. The daughter-in-law's own story growing up poor in Southie. The gay granddaughter who is off-stage in the Peace Corps (I wished we had learned more of her story). The novel raises the question: are parents responsible for their own children's stumbles? If your children are your life's work and they stumble are you a failure? There is so much to discuss about this novel. I can't wait to hear what resonated the most for other readers.

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