Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random House
The Kellehers have spent their summers at their beach house in Maine pretty much forever. Now Alice, the family matriarch, is living in the house in Maine full-time after the death of her husband Daniel, and three younger Kelleher women have come for a visit unexpectedly the same week. Maggie, Alice’s granddaughter, has just broken up with her boyfriend and is also carrying his baby, and comes to Maine to decompress and figure out what to do with her life. Kathleen, Maggie’s mother and the black sheep of the family, never planned to come back to Maine but her daughter’s situation compelled her to descend on the cottage. And Ann Marie, who married into the Kelleher family, sees herself as the only one who really cares for Alice, and as such isn’t thrilled to find Maggie and Kathleen also at the cottage during “her” time with her mother-in-law. As the four women struggle to get along, years of disagreements and harsh words infect their every interaction, to the point where the reader can’t help but wonder if this family will ever be able to tolerate each other.
Maine is a complex, layered novel with some of the most interesting and compelling characters I’ve read in a long time. I have to address something right off the bat – these characters are NOT likable. I wanted to slap each one of them on multiple occasions, in fact. But the fact that they were all such train wrecks is what made them so compelling. We all know people like the Kelleher women in real life – people who just cannot get along with their family members, people who are set on having a negative attitude about everything, people who refuse to see the reality of life that is staring them in the face – and that is what made me love this book so much. These women are messed-up, they are rude, they are insensitive, they insist on hurting the people who love them, and all these things make them completely, heartbreakingly, realistically flawed.
And Sullivan’s writing is to die for. I loved her first novel, Commencement [my review], partially because of the smart writing, and Maine is no different. She manages to make her characters sound intelligent but also like real people at the same time. I’m reading another book right now with super-intelligent characters and incredibly smart writing, but the characters don’t seem realistic to me. Not so in Maine – these are highly educated, crazy-smart women who also manage to seem like people I could be friends with (or in this case, enemies, since I wouldn’t actually want to befriend these women in real life).
A few reviews I’ve read have made mention of the fact that there’s very little plot in this book, and although I suppose I would agree with that statement, personally I didn’t find that problematic at all. I loved getting to know these four women and understanding the complex relationships between them. There is a ton of history in this family that Sullivan had to flesh out, and there are several major secrets that are revealed toward the end, so I was entertained enough by these aspects of the novel. I enjoy character-driven novels more than plot-driven ones usually anyway. So if you take issue with very little plot, Maine may not be your cup of tea, but it didn’t bother me one bit.
By now I think I’ve made it quite clear how much I enjoyed Maine. I think J. Courtney Sullivan is exceedingly talented and I will happily read whatever she writes in the future. If you enjoy character-driven novels with excellent writing, this book is for you.