There are many ways to write a novel. Tou can dazzle the reader with an intricate narrative, full of clever twists and conundrums. You can fill it with violence or sex or mathematical theorems. You can dazzle with your arcane knowledge, your vaulting ambition or your extraordinarily inventive voice.
Or you can simply set down, in plain language, the story of someone’s life. Through small, rich, intimate scenes, you can reveal how it was to be part of this family, this neighborhood. How it was to eat meals and have fights, to be loved, to be hurt. To have this marriage, these children, this life. You can, like Chekhov, inform this quiet narrative with compassion.
This is the way Alice McDermott chose to write her seventh novel.
Someone opens in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn, between the world wars. Time and place are delivered subtly, through familiar references: the zigzag rickrack trim on a mother’s apron, the game of stickball played in the street, the speakeasy down the alley. This is a community that McDermott knows intimately.
The novel begins with a young woman called Pegeen, arriving home from work, watched by Marie, sitting on the stoop and waiting for her father. Marie is the modest narrator. She’s shy but a close observer. When Pegeen ruefully reveals a torn stocking, Marie reports, “I saw the laddered run, the flesh of Pegeen’s thin and dark-haired calf pressing through between each rung. The nail of the finger Pegeen ran over its length was bitten down to nothing, but the movement of her hand along the tear was gentle and conciliatory. A kind of sympathy for her own flesh.” One of the great strengths of the book lies in this sense of tenderness and intimacy, of empathy for the human condition.
Marie’s small family is composed of a handsome, beloved, alcoholic father, who sneaks a drink during his evening stroll with her; a cherished older brother, Gabe, who finds a vocation for the priesthood; and a fierce mother, who holds the family together.
The narrative unfolds slowly, through small moments of beauty and vividness. The moments are small, but packed with complexity and emotion.
Marie’s life contains the trauma that we all endure. She suffers a devastating betrayal by an opportunistic suitor. She endures her father’s appalling death, although she doesn’t know the worst of it until she nearly dies, years later, in childbirth. She sees her brother’s fall from grace and the decline of the neighborhood. She meets someone, with such dextrous subtlety that I had to go back and reread the passage, to see when it was that her husband entered her life. McDermott reminds us that this is how things work, that life unfolds itself in these small moments, without dazzle.
This sort of novel is necessary. We need to know about other lives: This knowledge expands our understanding, it enlarges our souls. There are differences between us, but there are things we share. Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief: Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.
Roxana Robinson reviewed this book for the Washington Post.