'"MAINE." By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf. $25.95.
Back in the 1940s, Alice's husband, Daniel, won, in a crazy bet, three acres of land along the coast of Maine. Daniel's brothers helped the young couple build a summer cottage on the grounds, and so began a long family love affair with this particular patch of paradise. Summers in Maine were happy days for the Kellehers, with fresh seafood, cold swims in the Atlantic and children running rampant over the property.
But the years flew by, and things changed. Daniel died. Alice's three children -- Kathleen, Clare and Patrick -- had their own children, and they all went their separate ways. Kathleen left suburban Boston and ended up in California running a worm fertilizer farm with her boyfriend. Clare and her husband, Joe, sold religious merchandise and were often too busy with their family to make the trip to Maine. Patrick, though, became a stockbroker, and he and his wife, Ann Marie, built Alice another home on the Maine land, a more modern place tricked out with stainless-steel appliances and a big-screen TV. And Alice's three children divvied up their family time at the cottage, so they'd no longer trip over each other. Kathleen would have June, Patrick was July, and Clare was August.
As the story begins, it is June, and Alice is packing up boxes in the family's summer home. She has recently changed her will, and the local Catholic church will get the Kellehers' summer compound, now valued in the millions, when she dies. Of course, she hasn't told anybody in her family about this.
Like most great stories of family dysfunction, J. Courtney Sullivan's "Maine" is filled with characters with secrets. Sullivan's narrative is told through the perspectives of four women -- Alice, her daughter Kathleen, Kathleen's daughter Maggie and Anne Marie. When each of them arrives in Maine during the summer, they bring a full set of emotional baggage. Maggie, in her early 30s and a writer in New York City, is pregnant and has just broken up with her loser boyfriend. Ann Marie is excited because she has invited a neighboring couple from Newton, Mass., for July Fourth weekend and she has a whopping crush on the husband. Kathleen, an AA member, is worried about being around her family members, as they tend to bring out her most bitter, angry self -- and drink a lot. And Alice is holding the secret about the property sale -- and another, darker secret that she has held on to her entire adult life.
"Maine" covers a lot of multigenerational emotional ground and a lot of family history. As the story progresses, it's intriguing to see the current dysfunction trace its way back through the generations to its roots in Catholic guilt, alcoholism and bad decisions.
As the plot thickens, and the characters finally start spilling their secrets, the narrative changes a bit, becoming less of a window into each of the four women's thoughts and feelings, and more of a dialogue-driven account. The novel almost starts to read like a play, and becomes a page turner as you can't help but wonder: What horribly vicious thing will someone say next?
But not everything is Sturm und Drang. These characters have dark sides, but they're also complex and often amusing -- probably because these people are just characters and not actual members of your own annoying family. Ann Marie is obsessed with creating the perfect dollhouse for a contest and starts pouring money into the project. Alice seems obsessed with a handsome young priest and with ruthlessly getting bunnies out of her garden. Kathleen is simply incapable of saying anything kind to Ann Marie, even with Maggie practically begging her to stop being so mean.
And then there's another character that helps take the edge off the family drama -- Maine itself. Sullivan captures the beauty of the coast, the magic of a black-as-velvet sky lit with stars, the pleasures of a seaside lobster pound.
Will these women be able to overcome their challenges and find strength in family?
Sullivan, who also penned the wonderful "Commencement" about four recent graduates of Smith College and last year edited a collection of essays titled "Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists," may write about flawed women, but she is also writing about strong women.
There's a passage in this book when Maggie is thinking about her grandfather's funeral. She remembers her cousin Chris reading one of the prayers, which makes her think more broadly about the event:
"Chris' voice cracked as he said, 'That we might console one another in our time of grief just as Jesus needed consoling upon the death of Lazarus.
"Lord, hear our prayer,' the congregation replied robotically, and Maggie thought of how Chris had pronounced the word console like he meant a cabinet where you store electronics, as if Jesus were a fifty-inch TV requiring a place to sit and collect dust.
"They always turned to the men for strength in these moments, perhaps because they looked so invincible in their suits. The men pulled the cars around to the front of the church and dropped their wives and daughters off so they didn't have to walk from the parking lot; the men carried the casket up the stairs from the hearse. But in the end, it always fell to the women to do the hard work of putting everything back together again."
And in the end, that is indeed what women -- real or richly fictional like those in "Maine" -- try to do, despite, well, everything.
-- Catherine Mallette