J. Courtney Sullivan
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 384 pp.
“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,...