Mary Lou's Reviews > Maine

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
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Aug 16, 2012

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** spoiler alert ** Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan is a novel I sped through, reading because someone loaned it to me, not caring too much about it. The experiences and relationships of matriarch Alice Kelleher, her older daughter Kathleen, her daughter-in-law Ann-Marie, and her adult granddaughter Maggie are the gist of the novel: three generations of women, the ways they communicate, compensate, and interact. To Sullivan’s credit, she develops the characters well enough that I could keep them straight and follow the story even with cursory attention.

As the title suggests, the focus of the story is property in Maine, accessed by a road “from a fairy tale, a long stretch of sand inside a tunnel of lush pine trees. When they reached the end, there was the ocean, sparkling in the sun, dark blue against a small sandy beach, which was nestled between two long stretches of rocky coast. . . three acres, too—all this land along the water” (13). Daniel Kelleher won the land in 1945, built a cottage with help from his brothers for himself and Alice, and they vacationed there every summer with their families which eventually included their three children, 42 nieces and nephews, and, finally, five grandchildren.

Their youngest son Patrick, the most successful, married Ann Marie, who Alice considered to be “a better daughter to her than either” Clare, her middle child or Kathleen, the rebellious oldest.

On the surface, Alice is admirable: she has attended Mass every day “for the past six decades, run both the Sunday School program, when her children were small, and the Legion of Mary once they had grown” (6). As the story opens, Alice has decided to give the property in Maine to the local church St. Michael’s by the Sea, which is floundering because of lack of funds. The initial cottage, a modern house Patrick had built for his parents a few years before Daniel died, and the property is now worth more than two million dollars. Alice has not mentioned this to her family, but she has begun packing and giving things away because “she didn’t want anyone to be burdened by the mess once she was gone” (4).

Although each character has her own issues, Alice’s background is the most compelling. She makes all of the major decisions in her life because of guilt about her sister Mary’s death in the fire of 1942 at the Cocoanut Grove, Boston’s premiere nightclub. Alice is there, dressed in her sister Mary’s clothes for a blind date with Daniel whom she finds ugly and unexciting. Mary has a rich fellow who, Alice learns, plans to propose that night, and Alice is beside herself with jealousy. She leaves the club in a fit of pique, argues with Mary when she follows her, sends Mary back into the club, which is why Mary is there when the fire starts, and then Alice lies to her family, never acknowledging that she was outside the club waiting for Mary when the fire started. Alice feels totally responsible for Mary’s death, though too cowardly to be honest, and she lives her life hoping for atonement, which she associates with giving the Maine property to the church.

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