J. Courtney Sullivan

Book - 2011

Three generations of women converge on the family beach house in this wickedly funny, emotionally resonant story of love and dysfunction.

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FICTION/Sullivan, J. Courtney
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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2011.
1st ed
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi book."
Physical Description
388 p. ; 25 cm
Main Author
J. Courtney Sullivan (-)
Review by New York Times Review

AH, family. Isn't it satisfying to leave your own briefly behind to drop in on another - and see how thoroughly they bungle it all up? This is the pleasure of "Maine," J. Courtney Sullivan's second novel, which delves into the secrets and simmering emotions of one dysfunctional family over the course of a single summer month. It is June, and three generations of the Kelleher clan are preparing to assemble for their seasonal retreat, at a cottage set on three acres of beachfront property won on a bet back in 1945. "Maine" - similar in architecture to Sullivan's first novel, "Commencement," which studied the lives and loves of four Smith College grads - is told from the rotating perspectives of four Kelleher women: Alice, the widowed, 83-year-old matriarch, a devoted Catholic and fierce but lonely woman who is haunted by a tragedy in her past; Alice's granddaughter Maggie, a fiction writer living in Brooklyn whose first collection of stories was about "love gone awry" (and who, though she was supposed to arrive in Maine with her boyfriend, has instead shown up solo, and pregnant, love having gone awry yet again); Maggie's mother, Kathleen, the black sheep of the family, who on hearing of her daughter's predicament hops a plane from California even though she vowed after her father's death that she would never visit Maine again; and Ann Marie, the fastidious, tightly wound wife of Kathleen's brother, Patrick, whose carefully constructed marriage is not all it seems to be. Ann Marie is one of the novel's triumphs: a homemaker with a martyr complex who goes out of her way for other people, then resents them when they don't do the same unto her. Her darting thoughts are a welcome contrast to the other Kellehers' lugubrious rehashing of old wounds. Unlike Kathleen, who divorced her husband, got sober and started her own business, Ann Marie is stuck between two worlds, Maggie's and Alice's, and looking for a way out. Sullivan's observations of the generational changes in desire among women of the past century are particularly astute. Alice, who had wanted to be a painter in Paris, wound up living not far from the city she grew up in, the mother of three children. "Maggie," she observes, "was the artist of the family. Sometimes Alice thought Maggie was what she herself might have become if only she had been born a generation or two later. Timing was everything when it came to being a woman - the moment you entered the world could seal your fate." Kathleen, too, envies Maggie's life. "She had made it as a writer in New York City, the sort of big, bold independent existence Kathleen had realized too late that she herself wanted." But Maggie, having achieved professional success, finds assembling a family a much more daunting idea. "It wasn't a terribly liberated thought, but sometimes Maggie envied her grandmother and other women from her generation, for whom love and marriage and children seemed automatic, a given." While her grandmother doles out a great deal of bad advice ("There's no such thing as too thin"; "Kids need a slap every now and again. It's good for them"), she occasionally offers up a frank observation that Maggie can warm to. "You all seem to think that you should marry someone when you feel this intense emotion, which you call love," Alice says. "And then you expect that the love will fade over time, as life gets harder. When what you should do is find yourself a nice enough fellow and let real love develop over years and births and deaths and so on." Sullivan beautifully channels Alice through her memories: the fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942; the war brides rushing to the shores of Boston Harbor one Aug. 15, a day the church had told them the blessed water would help them to conceive. Even more convincing are the smaller ways Sullivan fully inhabits Alice's perspective. When she invites Maggie, clad in jeans and a tank top, out to lunch, she suggests that her granddaughter change out of her "play clothes" ; at a restaurant, the businessmen seated nearby are "youngsters in suits." In fact, Alice is much more richly drawn than Maggie, a character with whom one might assume Sullivan herself (also a young writer of fiction based in Brooklyn) could most identify. But Maggie doesn't think like a writer. She never gets an idea or has anxiety about not having an idea; she doesn't worry that she's been on vacation in Maine for three weeks and hasn't written a word of her novel, or that the baby she has decided to keep will soon consume hours of her writing time. Yet, as with Alice, Sullivan effortlessly locates Maggie within her generation via small but resonant details, as when one of her friends appears in a "tiny tight dress in Lewinsky blue." Sullivan hits her stride once she gets all her characters to Maine. There, she can put them around a dinner table or take them out to a field and let the fireworks erupt. Unfortunately, for much of the book, Alice is the only one actually in Maine. The other family members are still at home, packing and fretting. Sullivan inundates us with their memories and hurts, straining to set the stage. One yearns as her characters do to escape their tangled ruminations and get to the beach. ONCE they do arrive, we're not disappointed. The narrators come fully to life, and the dynamics between them are rich and exhilarating. It turns out these are pretty funny people, and as they're thrown together, their humor is unleashed. On the first night, when Maggie asks her grandmother how she and her grandfather met, Alice tells her, "I hardly think that's appropriate dinner table conversation." Maggie, exasperated by her mother's pleas that she move with her to her (messy) California home, says: "No offense, but your home is not exactly a safe place for a baby. I'd have to have a tiny pink or blue Hazmat suit made." The dialogue sizzles as the tension between the women's love and anger toward one another tightens. "Well, that's that, then," Alice says when she learns Maggie is pregnant. "Worse things have happened." Kathleen is incensed by her mother's sanguine response, imagining the fire and brimstone that would have erupted had one of Ann Marie's kids - one of the "golden grandchildren" - been the person breaking the surprising news. "You're not angry?" she demands. Alice, without missing a beat, comes back: "What would you prefer I say? That she's a little tramp like her mother, has absolutely no common sense and has just flushed her chances at being a real writer down the toilet?" Many novels begin with a full head of steam, only to peter out halfway through. So often I've gushed to friends about a book, then had to call them later to retract my recommendation. "Maine," conversely, starts slowly, but once it gets going, it does not falter. You don't want the novel to end in July. You want to stay with the Kellehers straight through to the end of August, until the sand cools, the sailboats disappear from their moorings, and every last secret has been pried up. Sullivan's characters arrive at their beach cottage with many burdens: guilt, secrets, old wounds. Lily King's most recent novel is "Father of the Rain."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 12, 2011] Review by Booklist Review

Sullivan's follow-up to Commencement (2009) introduces, as it did, four female characters, this time bound by the serpentine tangle of family. At the beginning of summer, three generations of Kelleher women descend on the family's beach home in Maine, as they have for half a century already. Changing point-of-view from one to another of the four protagonists, Sullivan creates deeply observed and believable, if not altogether sympathetic, characters, and as much is learned about one woman through the eyes of the three others as from her own perspective. Moody matriarch Alice, her uninvolved hippie daughter Kathleen, brown-nosing daughter-in-law Mary Ann, and newly-single, thirtysomething granddaughter Maggie each has a simmering-below-the surface inner-monologue that lights a spark, and Sullivan makes sure we can only anticipate an explosion. Sullivan gracefully meets the challenge of crafting a cast clearly pulled from the same DNA soup, without a clunk or hitch in the machinery. Expect interest from book clubs and fans of its popular predecessor.--Bostrom, Anni. Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Sullivan follows debut Commencement with a summer spritzer that's equal parts family drama, white wine, and Hail Marys. The story follows the struggles of three generations of Kelleher women: drunken Alice, the mass-going matriarch; her rebel daughter, Kathleen, a Sonoma County farmer; Kathleen's sister-in-law, the dollhouse aficionado Ann Marie; and Kathleen's daughter, Maggie, an aspiring writer. Rather than allowing the characters to grow or the plot to thicken, the novel's conflict derives almost entirely from the airing (or not) of various grievances (Alice believes herself responsible for her sister's death; Maggie is pregnant, single, and terrified; Kathleen is still the bitter person she was before she sobered up; Ann Marie has a martyr complex). The Kelleher summer home on the Maine coast is the putative center around which the drama revolves, yet it is the women's common love for Daniel, the patriarch rendered faultless in death, who does the most to bring the women together. The book's tension is watered down at best, like a sun-warmed cocktail: mildly effective, but disappointing. When conflict finally does break the surface, the exhilaration is visceral but short-lived. Late in the story, Kathleen tells Maggie, "It's going to be okay," to which she responds, "It has to be." Unfortunately, the reader never gets much chance to worry otherwise. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Beautiful, fractious, and 83 years old, Alice Kelleher rules her children-especially her daughter, Kathleen, and her daughter-in-law, Anne Marie-with her cruel and callous speech. Granddaughter Maggie fares a little better, largely owing to her desperate need to serve as peacemaker. At the heart of this compelling novel of three generations of women emotionally stunted by fate and willful stubbornness is the family vacation property in Cape Neddick, ME, where the Kellehers have convened for six decades. Thirty-two-year-old Maggie is single, newly pregnant, and abandoned. Her mother, the abrasively immature at sixtyish Kathleen, leaves her California "worm poop" farm and lovely partner, Arlo, to get Maggie to come to her senses regarding this pregnancy. As for Anne Marie, she struggles to maintain the outward appearance of the saintly martyr watching over Alice, who could slay an elephant with her narcissism. VERDICT In her second novel (after Commencement), Sullivan brilliantly lays out the case for the nearly futile task of these three generations of badly damaged Irish Catholic women seeking acceptance from one another while failing badly at self-acceptance. [See Prepub Alert, 11/29/10.]-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Everyone has dark secrets. It's why God invented confession and booze, two balms frequently employed in Sullivan's well-wrought sophomore effort.Alice Brennan is Irish American through and through, the daughter of a cop, a good Catholic girl so outwardly pure that she's a candidate for the papacy. But Alice, more than that, is an Irish rose, "one of the most special young women out there, just waiting for someone to take notice." When Sullivan (Commencement, 2009) introduces to her, someone has taken notice, and decades have rolled by, and Alice Kelleher is now reflecting on 60 years of life at a beachside cottage that her husband won at gambling. She spends her days drinking red wine, reading, "watching the waves crash against the rocks until it was time to make supper," and avoiding her children's pointed demands that she not drink so muchand especially that she not drive once she'd had a few belts. As Sullivan's tale unfolds, there are plenty of reasons that Alice might wish to avoid taking too close a look at her life: There's tragedy and heartbreak around every corner, as there is in every life. So it is with the intertwined tales of her daughter and granddaughter, who are more modern creatures, all bound up in confessional groups of their own, yoga, homeopathy and all the other stuff of the contemporary examined life. Sullivan spins a leisurely yarn that looks into why people do the things they doparticularly when it comes to drinking and churchgoingand why the best-laid plans are always the ones the devil monkeys with the most thoroughly. The story will be particularly meaningful to Catholic women, though there are no barriers to entry for those who are not of that faith.Mature, thoughtful, even meditative at timesbut also quite entertaining.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.