Summers at the family beach house in Maine with all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, and cousins lovingly connecting – singing Irish songs, racing into the surf – sounds ideal, but, of course, family gatherings always have an undercurrent. In J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, it’s all about the dysfunctional relationships among the women and the beachfront property won in a war-time bet.
In the first half of the book, Sullivan prepares the foundation for the story, introducing each of the women in her own voice with her own chapter, revealing loyalties and jealousies, fears and traumas – they look fine but are all a mess under the surface. Mother Alice is a hard woman to like; in old age, she’s retained her beauty as well as her prejudices about anything and anyone who does not meet her conservative standards. Her daughters, Clare and Kathleen, have escaped her influence but try to retain a respectful silence while seething in private about her. Anne Marie, the daughter-in-law, always trying to please, has Alice’s favor on the surface, but seems ready to crack under the pressure of being perfect.
Sullivan uses religion and Irish family ties as a caustic undercurrent. Everyone prays, but the church offers little comfort and a lot of Catholic guilt. Alice, trying to make up for an old sin against her sister, donates the Maine property to the church – without telling her children. Her daughter, Clare, gets rich selling First Communion medallions and other religious artefacts on the internet. Daughter-in-law Anne Marie prays more than the others – when not obsessed with redecorating her dollhouse. Kathleen, the black sheep – divorced and “living in sin” in California, has a worm farm and battles the old family curse of alcoholism. Her daughter, Maggie, is the frontrunner of the next generation: Maggie is pregnant and unmarried, Cousin Fiona is gay – but no one is telling Grandma Alice.
Sullivan cleverly teases with secrets, forcing the reader to slog through chapters of angst, personal grudges, and family drama, hoping to uncover why Alice blames herself for her sister’s death in a fire, what horror happened at the patriarch’s funeral, when Maggie will tell about her pregnancy, how Alice will finally implode… She reveals the family secrets slowly in flashbacks and finally offers reasons for the bitterness and despair. Eventually, the women come together at the beach in Maine – Alice, Kathleen, Anne Marie, and Maggie – resolving the issues they have with each other and with themselves.
Like any Irish saga, this one is full of anxiety, despair, and drinking – but Sullivan offers her own brand of redemption and adds some humor. Alice’s decision to leave the million dollar beach property to the church seems in character, and perhaps every family’s nightmare – that grandma will die and leave it all to the church – but, in the end, the decision saves everyone. The story was too long, with too much anxiety for me, but the characters reflect women’s universal fear – will I become my mother?