Sunday, October 27, 2013

Alice Gets It Right

I've been reading Alice McDermott for a long time. Some books I have really enjoyed, other have seemed too slight or too sentimental. (Maybe I am harder on her because we're sort of from the same tribe? I don't know.) So I approached Someone with some doubts. But I needn't have worried. This time Alice gets it just right.

The bland title and the nondescript cover seem appropriate for the narrator Marie. The novel covers more than 60 years of her life, jumping back and forth in time from her childhood in Brooklyn, her married life in Queens, her old age. Marie has no great ambitions, unlike her older brother Gabe, who is destined for the priesthood, but she is, as her mother complains, “a bold piece”. Within her circumscribed world she is a fierce observer of the everyday scenes that are both straightforward and complex. And in each scene McDermott seems to strike just the right tone. The humor is never forced, the grief is never maudlin, the narrative is full of sentiment but never sentimental.

Marie is an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life, but McDermott imbues her with a strong will and a tender heart, and I found the prose pitch perfect and a pleasure to read.

Monday, October 7, 2013

All In The Family

If you haven't read anything about Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, that's a good thing. You can jump in and let this story unfold with no preconceptions. If you have read something about this book, and you think you won't like it, I'll urge you to give it a try. A plot that sounds gimmicky or just plain odd when described by a reviewer can be fascinating in the hands of a good writer. (Kate Atkinson's “Life After Life” is a great example of this).

Narrator Rosemary Cooke begins her story in what seems like an odd place – the middle. But this allows her, now in college at Davis, to look back at her five-year-old self in Indiana, and to introduce her family members in a series of flashbacks, each one filling in a little more of the complicated picture. Once again Tolstoy is correct - “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”. As Rosemary reluctantly begins to examine her memories of her childhood with her sister Fern and her brother Lowell, she must confront hard questions about what it means to be human.

Rosemary's narrative is funny, cynical, sharp – a college girl sometimes too smart for her own good. But she asks hard questions of herself and her family members, and the story that slowly unfolds is touching and heartbreaking.