Alice McDermott tells the story of a place and a time through her characters. I found this true of the previous book of hers that I read, After This, as well as this one. The lifetime of the main character, Marie, begins in perhaps the mid-1920s. Marie's Irish family lives in Brooklyn and McDermott paints a clear and focused picture of those years of Marie's childhood. Every character and every anecdote add to the picture of Marie's life; nothing is extraneous or wasted.
Marie's life is entwined with her brother's. Unlike Gabe, saintly since childhood, who became a priest for a brief time, she was called "our little pagan" by her parents. It was years before she understood that he left the priesthood because he was "a certain kind of man," rather than a tortured soul who grieved "not for the mortal world, but for himself alone."
Marie learns so much about life from the older women who gathered daily in the apartment above Fagin's mortuary where Marie worked for years. Fagin encouraged her to visit his mother where she heard the kindly told, true stories of those who were laid to rest below.
I could not have said then if Gabe's history added scandal to my own, or merely some pity. But I was certain they would know, the ladies in Fagin's upper room. They would know the clear-eyed truth of it. And they would know as well how to choose their words to tell a kinder tale.
And Marie has a great revelation that comes to us all in moments of great loss. Hers comes when Walter Harnett throws her over.
[T]he ordinary days were a veil, a swath of thin cloth that distorted the eye. Brushed aside, in moments such as these, all that was brittle and unchanging was made clear. My father would not return to earth, my eyes would not heal, I would never step out of my skin or marry Walter Harnett in the pretty church. And since this was true for me, it was true, in its own way, for everyone. My brother and I greeted the people we knew walking by, neighborhood women, shopkeepers in doorways trying to catch a breeze. Each one of them, it seemed to me now that the veil was briefly parted, hollow-eyed with disappointment or failure or some solitary grief.
Interspersed with the story of her childhood and adolescence, she gives us glimpses of her life so that we know early on in the book that she did marry and have children. When she was a young, she refused to learn how to cook because the mother of her friend who could cook had died, and she thought these two facts were related. Her mother was frustrated, but accepted her as "a bold piece." Marie delighted in that description of herself, and believed that her boldness carried her through a near-death experience during childbirth, and led her to defy the doctors and to have more children.
If this sounds like a grim and sad tale, my focus misrepresents the whole. I found it to be beautifully told with clear eyes and a loving heart.
Alice McDermott, Someone, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013, 240 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at UVa and the public library and Amazon.