Thursday, January 31, 2013

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307595126
Date: June 2011
Pages: 400
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Publisher Summary:  In her best-selling debut, Commencement, J. Courtney Sullivan explored the complicated and contradictory landscape of female friendship. Now, in her highly anticipated second novel, Sullivan takes us into even richer territory, introducing four unforgettable women who have nothing in common but the fact that, like it or not, they’re family. 

For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. Their beachfront property, won on a barroom bet after the war, sits on three acres of sand and pine nestled between stretches of rocky coast, with one tree bearing the initials “A.H.” At the cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface. 

As three generations of Kelleher women descend on the property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago. 

By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other. 

My Thoughts:   In the warm weather I enjoy reading books set in summer, centered around the beach.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read that kind of book during the winter holidays, when my mindset was far from sun, sand and lapping waves.  But several bloggers I trust and admire raved about Maine.  So I opened it and began reading.  I was instantly transported into the life of Alice, matriarch of the Kelleher Family.  They’re a large extended Irish Catholic family. The author, J. Courtney Sullivan, focuses on women from three generations, detailing how the secrets, misunderstandings, bad decisions and lack of communication have negatively impacted them.  In absorbing and mesmerizing chapters, she shows the results, namely, unnecessarily strained relationships and severe dysfunction.  And yet, they can still rely on each other. 

The book opens with Alice, in her seventies and widowed a year, back in Maine for the summer, as always.  She’s boxing up most of the clothes, dishes and other items amassed over the years.  She’s made a decision about what to do with the house, the cottage and beach-front property when she dies.  Alice won’t tell her children about it until the paperwork’s all done and settled.  She doesn’t want to hear their angry objections, complaints and opinions.  Alice doesn’t care what the children say, anyway.  It’s her property and, as far as Alice is concerned, she’ll do what she wants with it.  

Alice is a complex and fascinating woman.  Sullivan steers clear of the typical loving, motherly matriarch and, instead creates in Alice an unhappy, brash and opinionated woman who says what she wants regardless of the pain her words may cause.  Alice is not easy to like, especially at first when she seems vain, self-centered and rude.  As she begins to resemble a three-dimensional real person over course of the novel , we learn more about her and her life, it’s easier to see where she’s coming from.  I was able to understand Alice better even though I didn’t agree with much of her behavior.  I can’t say I ever really came to like Alice but I felt empathy for her.  Alice has been heavily burdened by deep pain and guilt for most of her life as a result of a horrible tragedy that occurred when she was a young woman.   Alice, who’s always been very religious and a faithful churchgoer, sentenced herself to live a self-imposed penance for life.  What’s most unfortunate and I thought, very sad, is that Alice doesn’t think about or care how her selfish decision impacts so many other people.  

Kathleen, Alice’s daughter and the oldest, was her father, Dennis’, favorite.  This irritated Alice who felt her husband spoiled Kathleen.  (He did!)  At a young age, Kathleen intuited that Alice wasn’t a happy woman and didn’t particularly care to be a mother.   Kathleen is very similar to Alice in many ways.   Alice wasn’t a great mother but neither was Kathleen.  Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, remembers her mother telling her often how she didn’t want to be a mother.  I can’t imagine hearing that from my mother while growing up!  Kathleen, in middle age, is finally happy with her life.  Still, when it comes to her family, she usually behaves like a spoiled, selfish child.  Sullivan quite successfully shows these different aspects of Kathleen.  She feels inconsequential and lacking in Alice’s presence and bitter sarcasm and teasing becomes her defense mechanism.  I often found Kathleen difficult to like or tolerate for very long unlike Maggie who’s my favorite character.  Kathleen loves her daughter but acts more like her friend than her mother. 

Maggie’s in her 30s and struggling to figure out her life.  She’s got a good career but is insecure in her relationship with her boyfriend and desperate to please others.  Alice attributes this to the impact of her mother, Kathleen’s alcoholism.   Alice thinks Maggie’s too sweet and too interested in other people.   Alice bristles whenever Maggie asks about her past and her relationship with Dennis and her siblings. This, of course, hurts Maggie’s feelings.  Alice prefers her daughter-in-law, Ann Marie.   

Ann Marie is married to Patrick, Alice’s favorite child, who, in her view does everything correctly and is wealthy.  They have 3 grown children who aren’t the “perfect people” Anne Marie tells everyone they are.  Anne Marie does everything for everyone; she’s the ultimate people pleaser with the ideal life.   She’s also unhappy and feels stymied.  Her thoughts belie her actions and would shock most of the Kellehers.  But the truth scares her. 

Sullivan gives us four amazing women in this book.  She successfully makes them people we recognize in our own lives in whole or in part and therefore, can understand and sympathize with them. But, in their dysfunction, they are larger than life.  It’s mesmerizing to read as these women interact, often judging and criticizing one another, constantly finding fault and never appearing to really like each other.  Yet, no matter how flawed they are or how they feel, they still take care of one another. 

This book will make you smile, laugh, cry and gasp.  Hopefully, it will make you appreciate your own family and see them in a new and different light.  Sullivan took this story in a direction I didn’t expect and I was surprised by the ending.  Pleasantly surprised.  I had difficulty writing this review because I felt there’s so much to say.  I apologize if this sounds more like a book report than a review but Sullivan created wonderful characters and a fantastic story.  I highly recommend this book.


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, Amy! You are so right- Sullivan did an amazing job making these characters into people we recognize, understand, and sympathize with. The ending caught me by surprise, too.

  2. A few of my friends and my mother all loved this one, but I wasn't crazy about it. It was too much characters and not enough story for me.

  3. I've seen a lot of reviews for this book and each one only makes me want to get to this book a little faster. So many books, so little time!

  4. I have read a bevy of reviews of this one, and they have been very polarized, with some loving it, and some hating it. I do still want to read it because sometimes I like reading books about unlikable characters, and I hear that this book is filled with them! Excellent review today! I have missed you!

  5. I've had this book on my stacks, and after reading your review, it has been there too long!

  6. Sounds good. And I feel sometimes like I'm writing book reports too. I guess it is the nature of book blogging.

  7. JoAnn:
    Thank you for sending me the book. I wasn't sure at first if I liked many of the characters but then I realized how simplistic that idea was especially considering the complexity of these women. Severl of them reminded me of my own famiy members (for better or worse!). I thought Sullivan did a terrific job profiling the Kelleher women and the loyalty family can inspire above all else.

  8. Bermuda:
    I can understand that. There wasn't a plot really, this was all about the 4 women and their relationships. I love great characters but I also like a good plot. Still, I sometimes enjoy books that are primarily character sketches when the characters are truly fascinating. It could also be that I was reminded of several of my own family!

  9. Meg:
    I couldn't have said it better, Meg! You're in good company! Sometimes I look at the books I already have and want to read and feel some ojida because I don't know when I'll get to read them. meanwhile I have lists and more lists of books I don't own but so much want to read!

  10. Zibilee:
    Maine is worth reading for the four women. Several aren't likeable but there's much more going on below the surface including sadness, extreme self-loathing and terrible insecurity. And if these women weren't struggling so hard to hide their true selves I think they'd be so much more likable. I hope you read this book one day because I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on it!

  11. Nise:
    It's so difficult to get to all of the books we want to read! This is a good book to read while reading others because it's, by and large, all about the characters with little to no real plot. I'll be watching for your review, but don't rush to read it on my part as I'll enjoy your reviews of other books in the meantime!

  12. Ienners:
    Thank you! Some books are so easy to review but with others I sometimes get bogged down in the minutiae and end up writing a report my 5th grade teacher would be proud of. And then I start all over again!

  13. I love stories like this. I've got this on a shelf around here somewhere and I wouldn't mind being tranferred to sunny days :)