The Kellehers are the kind of spring-loaded Irish Catholic family that’s quick to attack, but also quick to relent. When everyone comes together, they don’t hesitate in digging up old grievances, which still have the power to rankle, years and even decades later. Then, just as quickly, it’s passed; the general mood can swing from calm to savage to calm again in mere minutes. For stages two and three especially, alcohol is a factor.
Luckily, even though the Kellehers spend plenty of time gossiping about one another, they don’t see each other in person very often. But that’s about to change, as four different generations descend upon the East Coast oceanfront property owned by Alice, the family matriarch, in the middle of their most turbulent summer yet.
Many have called Maine, the sophomore novel from New York’s J. Courtney Sullivan, beach reading. This is meant as a compliment, I suppose, but it does Sullivan’s book—which is also thick, rich, and gorgeously tangled—a grave injustice. Put the sunscreen down, and step away from the boardwalk. Give it your full attention. It’s just as good.
The bulk of the novel is devoted to loomings: alternating chapters devoted to four different Kelleher women as they pack, plan, and generally look ahead, with varying degrees of dread, to their trips to Alice’s cottage.
There’s Maggie, a secretly pregnant writer whose boyfriend has chosen a poor moment to confirm his flakiness. There’s Maggie’s mother Kathleen, one of the few Kellehers who’s managed to escape Alice’s iron fist, and who now runs an organic worm farm in California. There’s Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, and a perfectionist who feels as though she’s been tasked with keeping the peace. And there’s Alice herself, whose pent-up guilt over her sister’s death back in the 1940s leads her to make a secret deal with her local church concerning the future of the family’s beloved cottage.
Maine’s great strength is its ability to hold four such disparate voices in total harmony. From inside her own head, each Kelleher woman seems completely reasonable, with well-defined routines and a pack of supporting characters; it’s only once you switch perspectives that her flaws and prejudices leap to the fore. None of these characters could be called virtuous, really, but even their ugliest behaviour comes from a relatable impulse.
And it’s the family ties that conquer all—more specifically, the female ones. As Sullivan shrewdly observes, “The men didn’t last,” and she later describes Kathleen and Maggie’s relationship thusly: “[T]hey would probably never have a perfect understanding between them, though there was love so strong it suffocated.” Of course, during that asphyxiation, love can be awfully difficult to recognize as such.
It must be said that the climactic scenes at the cottage are something of a fizzle, especially given the lavish table setting that precedes them. It’s similarly disappointing to realize that not everyone in the extended Kelleher clan (related tip: draw a family tree on the inside cover for easy reference) makes an appearance there. And, for pure catharsis’s sake, it doesn’t seem fair that Ann Marie’s ridiculously expensive dollhouse makes it to the last page without getting smashed to pieces.
On the other hand, Sullivan’s approach is probably closer to how many such familial traumas actually play out. You spend months gritting your teeth in advance, preparing for every conceivable insult and snub, only to feel underwhelmed by the event itself. In the end, one dinner isn’t going to change much of anything, for better or for worse. Family’s true effects are cumulative.
Knopf, 400 pp, $29, hardcover(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, August 21, 2011)