Marie is the daughter of Irish immigrants, growing up in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ‘40s. She is a quietly rebellious child—“our little pagan,” they call her—unlike her perfect older brother, Gabe: thin, handsome, and scholarly. He has an obvious vocation, say the priests at school, but Marie’s parents are not so eager for him to enter the priesthood. When Marie is a teenager, she refuses to learn to cook, and when she graduates from high school, she believes that it is déclassé to travel to Manhattan to work, so she turns down one opportunity after another until her mother finds her a job at the local funeral home.
Marie lives in an odd time and place. Her entire community is so straight-laced that it seems that women are supposed to marry without ever dating and have children without ever having sex. Her mother never explains anything to her, and after a brief and disastrous love affair, she never has a real relationship again. She dates, but it seems to be a shameful, middle-of-the-night activity. Since McDermott jumps around in time throughout the book, the reader knows that she eventually has several children, but how she accomplishes this seems to be a mystery.
Alice McDermott writes beautiful novels about the Irish- American experience. It is not until Marie is grown, after World War II, that the children of Irish immigrants begin to talk about leaving “the old neighborhood,” moving out to other parts of the city or even to the suburbs. Their own children are just Americans, not so clearly defined by their ancestry as their parents had been. McDermott’s characters shine: her loving father, who always had alcohol on his breath, which Marie later considered a sign of masculinity; her quiet and tragic brother; her hardworking, practical mother; and Fagin, her employer at the funeral home. One of my favorite characters was Tom, her husband, because he reminded me a bit of my husband. While Marie’s family was subdued, Tom loved to talk. In one scene, Tom and Gabe walked in the door, and when Marie asked about the traffic, Gabe said, “It was fine.” On the other hand, Tom, walking up the stairs with the suitcases, talked on and on about traffic jams, beach traffic, and out-of-town drivers just as David would. A talkative husband is a gift from God. No tension, no underlying stress or unspoken secrets. All of life, happily narrated.
In our changing, homogenized world, it is less common to see entire ethnic communities living together, sharing a distinct culture. In many ways, this is a fortunate development, opening up horizons for everyone, equalizing opportunity. On the other hand, Marie’s children show no interest whatsoever in their family’s past, treating their parents—as grown children do—as relics who are out of touch with reality. McDermott leaves it to the reader to make any value judgments here. Marie is not sentimental, but not resentful, either. Her story is a portrait of one life lived in a time of transition, as all times may be for someone, somewhere.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader’s copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.