Guilt Trip

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” George Eliot wrote in a famous passage in Middlemarch, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

J. Courtney Sullivan’s new novel, Maine, isn’t quite Middlemarch. (The latter wouldn’t feature a bikini-clad woman on its cover, for one thing.) But it shares Eliot’s interest in “unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven,” and Sullivan, like Eliot, is deeply sensitive to how human relationships are affected by our lack of “vision and feeling” for the ordinary struggles and joys of the people closest to us. This is true even in families, and may be especially true for Irish families, known as we are for avoiding unpleasant subjects and consequently nursing long grudges. But what family couldn’t benefit from a little more compassion?

Sullivan won accolades for her first novel, Commencement (2009), which focused on four roommates at Smith College working their way toward adulthood. Maine is likewise a portrait of four women, this time from different generations of a Boston-based Irish Catholic family: eighty-three-year-old matriarch Alice Kelleher, recently widowed, spends her summers at the vacation home her late husband built for her in Maine. Alice’s daughter, Kathleen, is a fifty-something divorcée and a recovering alcoholic who has built a new life in California. Kathleen’s daughter Maggie is a single writer living in Brooklyn, wondering, at thirty-two, what the shape of her adult life should be. And Ann Marie, married to Alice’s son Patrick, is a lifelong housewife coping with an empty nest and still trying to feel as if she truly belongs among the Kellehers.

The women converge on the summer home with emotional baggage, which—being Irish Catholics—they have no intention of unpacking publicly. Alice’s tale is the most melodramatic: she has spent her life wracked with guilt over the death of her sister in Boston’s 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire. She always kept to herself the circumstances of her own involvement (and, as she sees it, culpability) in the tragedy, never sharing the full story even with her husband. Alice finds herself leaning on the church for support and hoping to settle up with God without exposing herself emotionally to her children. Maggie arrives in Maine newly pregnant and coming to the realization that the news won’t make her sometime boyfriend into a good prospect for lifelong commitment. The pregnancy draws Maggie’s mother from the West Coast, despite the resentments and insecurities that have kept Kathleen away from her own mother for years. And Ann Marie, ever the mothering type, tries to nurture her in-laws even as her own emotional needs threaten to capsize her.

Sullivan takes her time introducing her characters, writing alternating chapters from the perspectives of each woman. The secrets are eventually, inevitably dragged into the open. The novel’s real drama, however, is in the slow unveiling of the women’s individual pasts and the way those experiences influence their feelings about each other. As the plot moves forward, we see a single event or encounter from multiple perspectives, deepening our knowledge of each character and filling out the picture of what’s really going on. Sullivan adeptly gets inside each woman’s head and shows us her faults and limitations without being condescending. Ann Marie’s obsession with dollhouse-decorating and her hopeless crush on a neighbor are sweetly pathetic, but the underlying pain is real. It’s easy to understand why Alice is stung when her children call her a “bigot,” but her thoughts on the increasing number of black residents in her old neighborhood (“you couldn’t drive down the street she had grown up on in Dorchester without locking the doors and holding your breath and saying ten Hail Marys”) make it hard to blame the kids. Kathleen’s sense of alienation—she thinks of her family as “the Kellehers,” as though she were someone else—is understandable given the reluctance of her relatives to confront the reality of addiction. (Alice, herself dependent on alcohol, is annoyed by Kathleen’s habit of “attending AA meetings as if they were handing out bars of gold there.”) Yet the other family members are not wrong in perceiving a certain amount of prickly self-righteousness in the new, sober Kathleen, who is in her own way as intolerant of weakness as Alice.

Maggie is the novel’s most convincing portrait, probably because she is the author’s peer. Despite an all-too-believable blind spot where her boyfriend is concerned, Maggie is highly perceptive, especially regarding the differences between her generation and previous ones. Mothers like her Aunt Ann Marie, she thinks, “plunged headlong into the whole endeavor before they knew any better. They weren’t selfish or greedy with their time because as adults they had never spent several Saturdays in a row lying in bed watching Meg Ryan movies on cable.” At the same time, Maggie can’t fully appreciate the cost of such dedication to a woman like Ann Marie (who justifiably feels that all her hard work and family concern is taken for granted), nor can she imagine how her grandmother resents the limited options she had as a young woman in the 1940s. Each woman measures the others against her own values and ends up both disapproving and envious.

The story is not wholly satisfying, especially surrounding Alice’s attempts to make amends for her past selfishness. The author flubs some of the mechanics of confession and absolution, and the young priest who ministers to Alice is the novel’s most cardboard character. But Alice’s struggle with faith—and with her children’s “godless”ness—is moving. She resents the children’s distance from the church (believing her daughter Clare uses the sexual-abuse scandal as “just an excuse to sleep in on Sundays”). But she also grieves because they lack the reliable support she treasures. “‘How can you believe, when the world is such a horrible place?’ Kathleen had asked her once, and that was when she realized that she had somehow failed to teach them about the true meaning of faith.”

George Eliot leads the characters of Middlemarch to the painful discovery of their own self-centeredness, and the awareness that their loved ones have “an equivalent center of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” The epiphanies in Maine are less dramatic: the women reach the end of the summer with their faults still in place, having come to understand and appreciate each other more, but still largely unable to perceive the underlying “heartbeat” in each other’s lives. They are, in other words, just like any other family.

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 
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Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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