Alice McDermott had written two critically acclaimed novels when she wrote “At Weddings and Wakes”. In this novel she again returns to her roots. Alice McDermott was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up on Long Island. “At Weddings and Wakes” is the story of three generations of an Irish Catholic Family. The story is told through the eyes of the youngest members of the family.
Lucy Daily is the third sister in the Towne family and the only one who is married. Twice a week, in the summer, she dresses up her three children in their Sunday best and travels by bus and train from suburban Long Island to the gloomy apartment in Brooklyn where she grew up. Here they will visit all day with Lucy’s three sisters and her stepmother, Momma. It is here, during these long hot summer days, that the children learn of the world of sadness and disappointment that haunts their mother and her sisters. The children love their aunts but are confused by Veronica who stays in her dark room and only comes out to have “cocktails” and Agnes who works in the city and seems to know everything. The one they feel most comfortable with is May, the ex-nun who tries to make everyone happy. May has to make everyone happy because Momma seems to make everyone very unhappy.
Momma came to America to join her older sister who was married to Jake Towne and expecting her fourth child. Her sister died in childbirth leaving Jake with four young children. Momma married Jake and became pregnant with a son. But Jake died before the son was born. Momma never got over her sad life and never let the girls forget it for a minute.
There is a moment of happiness when May finds love late in life. Everyone rises above Momma’s cynicism and the Towne family celebrates May’s happiness with an big Irish wedding bringing together family, friends and neighbors. But the celebrating is short lived, and within days the children find themselves grieving for a lost member of their family.
Alice McDermott uses the memories and the perceptions of “the children” to describe this strange, tormented family. Her prose is fluid and carries the reader through the long, drawn out summer afternoons. She gives us her penetrating insights into each character and tells a story that could be the story of all families as they deal with loss, sadness, and death.
Alice McDermott is a great storyteller who transforms an ordinary story about an ordinary family into a universal, haunting experience and a very good read.