May 2024
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Review: Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan

maineThree generations of women, none of whom ever really managed to get along, collide at one Maine “cottage”. The matriarch of the family, Alice, is disappointed by the way her progeny have turned out, especially Karen, her oldest daughter. Karen and Alice have never really connected, to the point of Alice becoming jealous of her late husband’s affection for his daughter. Now Karen’s daughter Maggie goes to the cottage to escape a disastrous relationship and her own personal issues, including the fact that she seldom sees her mother. The last of our narrators is Ann Marie, who married into the family, and finds herself trapped in the life of a housewife while struggling to maintain her perfect image.

What I appreciated most about this book was the perspective each woman had about the others. As in real life, we never know all the details of someone else’s life, not even those who are closest to us. So each woman judges the others and we can see why they’re right, why they’re wrong, or what they’ve missed. For example, Alice and her daughter Karen simply do not get along; what both women generally miss is the fact that they struggle to be close because they are too similar to one another. Is it any surprise that they were both loved so deeply by Alice’s husband Daniel?

I’d also suggest that a large part of the book’s humor comes from this – and it helps to lighten the very important and deep issues that they all face when coming together. It’s difficult to actually like any of the women – particular Alice – simply because we’re seeing them, flaws and all, and I’m not sure I’d actually want to be friends with them. Except perhaps for Maggie, who despite her difficulties is a kind girl who is uncertain about her life. But this is the sort of book where you don’t need to like the characters to actually enjoy the book.

To underscore the similarities between them despite their often acerbic opinions of one another, many of the women struggle, or have struggled, with the same problems. Alcoholism is a big issue and has affected all of the women in ways that they may not have known about until this story is told. Uncertain pregnancies is another – Alice was never sure she wanted to have children, and didn’t know what to do with them. Now Maggie is pregnant, but increasingly worried about her decision. And motherhood – Ann Marie isn’t sure what to do with her daughter, who has just announced that she’s a lesbian, and must return to loving her daughter as a person rather than focusing on this one aspect of her.

As you can obviously tell, this is a very character-driven book. There is a plot going on at the same time, with different strands for each woman, but the ending is somewhat lackluster, so I hesitate to really recommend that as one of the book’s charms. But if you’re interested in a character study, with women you’re not sure you like even as you can begin to understand the workings of their various minds, you could hardly go wrong with Maine.

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