Ahhhh … vacation. It’s amazing how that one word can immediately conjure up images of swaying hammocks, laughter, sunlight, and good food, isn’t it? A few weeks ago, I escaped the office for a much-needed staycation in my hometown of Charleston, SC. Armed with bathing suits, sundresses, and a huge stack of books, I was ready for a week of relaxation and beach-time.
But in all my vacation-planning excitement, I completely forgot that my brother and his family were also coming to town – with us all staying at my parents’ house. By “us” I mean me, my parents, my brother, his wife, and their two young sons under the age of six. (Needless to say – it was utter chaos.) Since I was under the same roof with my mom and sister-in-law, it was apropos that I happened to bring home Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. The author of the bestselling debut novel Commencement, Sullivan is genius at depicting the tenuous, delicate relationships between women, and the relationships between family.
For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run wild, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano at night. At their beachfront cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface. Three generations of Kelleher women descend upon the cottage one summer: Alice, the prickly matriarch of the family; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage and perpetual social climber; Kathleen, the daughter of Alice and the black sheep of the family; and Kathleen’s 32 year old daughter Maggie, who is pregnant and newly single.
Sullivan spins a powerful and achingly sad story about long-held secrets and misconceptions, sibling rivalry, Catholic guilt, and alcoholism. As the New York Times Book Review said: “You don’t want the novel to end in July. You want to stay with the Kellehers straight through to the end of August, until the sand cools, the sailboats disappear from their moorings, and every last secret has been pried up.”
These women are perfectly imperfect, and I loved them for it. Sullivan skillfully created real women with difficult problems and honest reactions. She allowed me to eavesdrop on a summer’s worth of whispered conversations and heated arguments, eventually discovering the irrational love (is there ever any other kind?) that strongly binds this family together and keeps them coming back to Maine each summer.
Summer beach reads often tie everything up nicely with a little pink bow at the end, but Maine did not. Like real life – and real families – things aren’t always resolved when you leave vacation. You must still cautiously tread around arguments, smooth over tensions, and hope that next summer’s vacation in Maine will be a little better.
– Kelly Bowen, Publicity Manager